Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?


Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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RIM’s Stephen Bates – disaster in motion on BBC 5 live

If you’re a business launching a make or break product, a prime time national radio interview is a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, Research in Motion (RIM) European boss Stephen Bates completely blew it on BBC 5 live breakfast today.

He was on to explain BlackBerry 10, the long-delayed new operating system designed to compete with hugely successful Apple and Android smartphones. Yet he was unable to give a single reason to buy a BlackBerry – criminal given the importance of today’s launch.

We learned that BlackBerry was a unique proposition – whatever that means. We learned that RIM was taking the essence of the BlackBerry experience and moving it forward. Apparently BlackBerry 10 gives users a new and unique experience – though we still have no idea what that means.

Worst of all, he completely ignored the question ‘What did you learn from the iPhone?’ Repeatedly. Nicky Campbell mocked Bates: ‘It sounds like you’re reading from a press release’. Yet Bates could have turned that most predictable question to his advantage: ‘The iPhone has had a big impact, but BlackBerry 10 is better for consumers and businesses because it does X, Y and Z’.

Stephen Bates’ woeful performance – repeated on BBC TV’s Breakfast – underlines why business leaders must be able to tell their story simply and convincingly. I can’t imagine Bates speaking such gobbledegook at home. So why do so in a radio interview?

He must have expected questions about BlackBerry’s fall from grace and the rise of the iPhone and Android. He had a perfect chance to answer those questions honestly followed by a straightforward explanation of why the BlackBerry is still a must-have device that will give Apple and Samsung a run for their money.

His failure to take that opportunity is baffling.

PS: RIM has a history of disastrous PR. Former CEO Mike Lazaridis stormed out of an interview with BBC’s Rory-Cellan Jones two years ago. The company horribly mishandled its service failure in October 2011. It needs some decent PR direction before it’s too late.

Remembering Douglas Smith Hon FCIPR

UPDATED 20.35 4 January 2012 with comment from Bob Skinner

Britain’s PR profession is today mourning a legend: Douglas Smith, one of the best known public affairs practitioners of the past 50 years.

Doug, who died of a heart attack just before Christmas, was president of the (Chartered) Institute of Public Relations the year I joined the institute, 1990. He also chaired the Public Relations Consultants Association. Doug set up Westminster Advisers and was also involved with a number of other public affairs agencies. It’s ironic that Doug died when debate is raging again about Britain’s membership of the European Union. Early in his career, he worked as a press officer with Ted Heath on Britain’s first (unsuccessful) bid to join the EU’s forerunner, the EEC.

Doug helped the triumphant 1989 campaign against Foxley Wood, a proposed new town in Hampshire – taking advantage of the growing concern about the impact of large developments on the environment.

I first met Doug soon after that triumph, when I was working for Eagle Star insurance, one of his clients. (Eagle Star was proposing a similar new town, Micheldever Station; the outcome was the same – eventually.)

Doug was a joy to work with: astute, professional, brilliantly connected and above all joyous company. Over lunch in Westminster in 1998, after I left Eagle Star, he was full of ideas about what I might do next. ‘Why don’t you write the definitive book about PR for the insurance industry?” he asked me. ‘You’d be perfect for it!” I never wrote the book – I didn’t share Doug’s confidence in my expertise, and doubted whether the industry’s PR needs were distinct enough to justify the publication. But the encounter was typical of Doug’s concern for a colleague and enthusiasm for a new project.

Enthusiasm – that was the essence of Doug. He brought energy and passion to everything he did, whether it was making a case for or against a new development, explaining the vital need to educate people on the danger of fires – or sharing his love of cricket. His infectious, slightly high-pitched laugh made any meeting or party unforgettable.

I last met Doug last July, at my first CIPR fellows’ lunch at the House of Lords. Happily, my father Bob Skinner, a 1973 CIPR Fellow, joined me and greeted Doug years after they cooperated as PR local government pioneers. Dad gave Doug a copy of his book about his career in PR and journalism, Don’t Hold the Front Page. On a glorious summer’s day, Doug’s smile illuminated the terrace of the House.

Thanks for the laughter and memories, Doug.

PS: My father, Bob Skinner, adds:

“Doug was exceptional. He was the most effective advocate and supporter of local government I have ever met and that commitment continued throughout his incredibly distinguished career that reached national and international level. And he never lost that enthusiasm for local government, which he served so well in many ways.”

Savile: BBC in crisis

The BBC seems to totter from crisis to crisis. But the corporation’s veteran reporter John Simpson may be right to call the Jimmy Savile scandal the BBC’s worst crisis for 50 years.

Yes, it could prove worse than 2004, when its chairman and director general resigned after the Hutton report condemned the BBC Today’s account of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The BBC actually gained support back then as many dismissed the report as a whitewash.

Savile is – potentially – different. But there are two separate threads to the story and it’s important not to confuse them.

First, did BBC executives know about Savile’s abuses and turn a blind eye? This would be appalling (despite those saying the world was very different in the 1970s), but could be seen as a by-gone issue unless today’s BBC executives were involved.

Second, did BBC executives order Newsnight to scrap its story last year because it would embarrass the corporation, which was planning Christmas tribute shows? Did bosses, including the then head of TV George Entwistle, ignore warnings about Newsnight’s evidence against Savile?

In my view, the greatest danger to the BBC’s reputation lies in what happened over the last year, not what it did 40 years ago. We don’t yet know the facts. John Simpson may be right. It’s possible that newly promoted Entwistle could go down in history as the BBC’s shortest lasting director general.

The BBC’s enemies are enjoying its discomfort. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But the truth may be mundane. Newsnight is not an investigative programme. Editor Peter Rippon may have got cold feet. Once he took his decision, he’s likely to have been utterly absorbed by a thousand other news stories. (Although he must have looked at the Savile tribute shows and thought back uneasily to the damning testimony of Savile’s victims in the interviews.). A serious misjudgement but understandable.

We’ll know soon if the truth is more damning.

In all the fury, we must remember two truths. The scandal is primarily about Savile and his victims. And for all its faults, the saga has shown the BBC’s strengths as well as its flaws. How many other media organisations would examine their failures in public as forensically as the BBC has this week? Panorama’s report was a triumph, as was the performance of the BBC News. Remember this when you hear politicians bashing the corporation over the coming weeks. The BBC can be infuriating, clumsy, arrogant and complacent at times. But Britain would be a far poorer country without it.

Asil Nadir, Roger Levitt and me

Disgraced tycoon Asil Nadir was jailed for 10 years today for robbing his company Polly Peck of millions. It marked the end of a 22 year fight for justice. Nadir spent years on the run in Northern Cyprus.

The news took me right back to 1990, that year of economic slump and Margaret Thatcher’s fall. Many of the boom years companies and tycoons hit the buffers – some through ill luck, others through criminal behaviour like Polly Peck. In January 1990 I was approached by a headhunter asking if I’d be interested in a PR job with tycoon Roger Levitt, who ran a huge investment and pension business, the Levitt Group. I remember looking at details of the job and the company at Waterloo station while I was struggling to get home after the terrible storm that critically injured ‘Allo ‘Allo star Gordon Kaye. (I was delayed as the storm devastated the old Windsor line station at Waterloo, which never reopened and was redeveloped as the short-lived original Eurostar terminal.)

I decided very quickly that Levitt looked like a spiv, and wanted nothing to do with him or his company. (Unlike Sebastian Coe and Adam Faith.) By the end of the year, Levitt was in disgrace and facing criminal charges when Levitt Group collapsed with debts of £34 million.

One of my better decisions.

Keep it human: my speech at PR Week crisis comms event

Keep it human: that was a key part of my presentation to last Thursday’s PR Week Crisis Communications conference in London.

Remember the human side to a crisis – whether it’s a tragedy in which people have died, a health issue or a problem with a product that millions of people have bought. Use language that your audiences – customers, employees, for example – understand and appreciate.

I cited the example of the infamous BlackBerry service blackout last October. The BlackBerry owner RIM took 36 hours to explain what the problem was. (It’s not a great idea for a company whose product is meant to provide constant communication to fail to communicate.) Worse, RIM’s language was designed for internal not external audiences:

@blackberryhelp: “Some users in EMEA are experiencing issues. We’re investigating, and we apologize for any inconvenience.“

As influential BBC technology reporter Rory Cellan-Jones mocked: “EMEA? Where on earth is that? I know, because marketing speak floods my inbox every minute, that it stands for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but many people will surely have been mystified.”

Say sorry and mean it

Many crises demand an apology. As the Forbes blogger Daniel Nye Griffiths puts it (praising a recent case we handled), “There is a difference between feeling sorry and actually saying sorry, and consumers are savvy enough to understand that distinction – even when PR departments are not.”

Take responsibility

Taking responsibility is hugely important.

At the outset, you need to make lightning fast decisions about the crisis and your level of responsibility. You need to be calm and dispassionate – but consider the situation from the outsider’s view.

Toyota and BP are examples of companies that failed to do this early enough, with deeply damaging consequences for their reputation. BP didn’t express sympathy and sorrow for the deaths of 11 men in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy for some four days. It took the view that it wasn’t technically responsible as Transocean operated the rig. That legalistic approach made it enemies from the start. (See my blogpost about Deepwater Horizon – the PR lessons.)

By contrast, British Midland famously took responsibility immediately after the 1989 Kegworth M1 air crash, with Sir Michael Bishop talking to the media on the scene. Virgin Trains took a similar approach with the 2007 Grayrigg accident.

Social media and 24 hour news brutally punish corporate indifference in a crisis.

Have one voice

It’s hard enough at the best of times to achieve clear and consistent communication within a large organisation. It’s even tougher, yet more important, in a crisis.

The rise of social media is an added complication. Many organisations have mixed views of social. Is it a conversation? A marketing platform? A customer service channel? Is it ‘owned’ internally by PR, marketing – or no-one? All this matters in a crisis, as we saw after January’s Costa Concordia disaster. Costa announced that it was taking a break from engaging in social while it responded to the tragedy. That was understandable, if misjudged. (It sent the signal that it could pick and choose when to engage – yet a crisis is exactly when you need to talk, however painful that may be.)

It got worse. It turned out that Costa had an automated feed to feed offers and the like to its social channels. In the heat of the moment, no one remembered to turn it off.


This is the incident that made Twitter famous as the source of breaking news. This photo was tweeted 10 minutes after the plane’s captain landed in New York’s Hudson river.

It illustrates how quickly news spreads in a world where anyone can break news, not just media organisations. I agreed with the opening speaker, former HSBC colleague Pierre Goad, that social hasn’t reinvented the idea of a crisis. I liked Pierre’s view that contagion is a key feature of a crisis: news spreading like wildfire. That concept was as true 30 years ago as today. The difference now is that it’s easier for people to challenge the official view of a crisis – the facts, the explanation, the implications – through Twitter and other channels. It’s also even more important for organisations to adapt to this need so they can respond quickly to events.

Get social before the crisis

This is an extension of one of the oldest rules in crisis management: make friends before you need them.

One of BP’s weaknesses in the Deepwater Horizon disaster was that it had not used social media to any degree before the crisis struck. This made it hard for the company to use social to engage with people, counter criticism and get its message across.

It also gave an opportunity to the witty Twitter page set up under the name of BP Global PR. It had no  connection with BP, but many of the tweets struck a clumsy note that some may have thought the authentic voice of an arrogant multi-national: “Please do NOT take or clean any oil you find on the beach. That is the property of British Petroleum and we WILL sue you”.

Be courageous – but not foolhardy

Responding to a crisis doesn’t mean surrender. You should pragmatically and honestly assess  the situation. Say sorry and accept fault gracefully when it’s right. But stand firm if it seems appropriate to you – and far more importantly to the outside world.

Our PR agency Edelman did just that a few years ago when its offices were invaded by a naked climate change protest. The bare protesters chose Edelman because it was working for an energy company. The PR company tried to engage the protesters in a debate, but they refused. As a result, Edelman stood firm and explained that it tried to turn the stunt into a debate but had been rebuffed.

Support your people

Crises can be a shattering experience for anyone involved. They leave scars.

Never forget that your colleagues may be going through the worst experience of their lives. Remember the human side of it – whether it’s the most junior member of the press office or the chief executive being given abusive treatment by the media, politicians and the public. Think about changing or resting spokespeople if they’re getting shell-shocked or are making mistakes. (That includes the CEO…)

I’ve mentioned the BP Gulf disaster a few times. BP would never win any prizes for how it handled the crisis. But anyone who calmly dissects BP’s PR failings needs to acknowledge the extraordinary challenge BP faced – regardless of its pratfalls. For months, a quarter of US media coverage was about Deepwater Horizon. That’s a higher proportion than 9/11. That kind of crisis would have overwhelmed most people, no matter how skilled. No wonder BP’s people were feeling battered.

Fellowship – thank you CIPR

I’m not one to blow my own trumpet. But I was thrilled this week to learn that I have been awarded Fellowship of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

I have been a CIPR member for 21 years. I helped organise its 1994 annual conference at Warwick, and have served on its West of England, Cymru/Wales and Corporate & Financial Group committees.

The nicest thing about becoming a Fellow is that I’m following in my father’s footsteps. Bob Skinner became a Fellow in 1973, and served with distinction as chairman of the Cymru/Wales group twice. Dad also wrote a fascinating history of the group, which served as the story of the development of the PR profession in Wales.

The CIPR has had its ups and downs. It has often been too focused on the UK capital. And it has not always served the interests of members who can’t rely on a generous employer to pay for expensive London hotels and events. (We deliberately chose a modest motel in the south Midlands for that 1994 conference, rather than the likes of Claridges.) It almost came a cropper in 2010 thanks to its old St James’s Square HQ. But under Jane Wilson, its savvy new chief executive, the CIPR is enjoying a resurgence. It is championing the professionalism of PR. It’s embracing social media. And it’s engaging in the debate about lobbying.

Long may it continue.