Plebgate: A hard lesson in strategic communication

When it comes to teaching lessons in crisis communication, scholars usually refer to the standard works in the field. One might, for example quote Timothy Coombs, one of the world’s most distinguished researcher in the field and NEMO visiting professor at Lund University (see NEMO Blog for more: http://nemo.blogg.lu.se/), who would suggest that a quick response, consistency and openness might be of high importance when facing a critical situation. Well, it is true. Works like Coomb’s Ongoing Crisis Communication are undoubtedly valuable – for scholars and practioners. And there is much to learn by reading such books. But sometimes, reality shows that there are situations, where the best insights on communication crises are, however, of not much help. The following story is one of those examples.

The incident itself was rather unspectacular. The account of what happened can be packed into two sentences, as an article in the Guardian shows: “On the evening of 19 September last year, Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip at the time, wanted to push his bike through the gates between Downing Street and Whitehall. The policemen at the gate said he couldn’t, and a short altercation ensued, with Mitchell saying ‘I thought you guys were fucking meant to help us.’”

As the author of the Guardian article, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, points out, “that might have been the end of the matter, maybe with private apologies, from Mitchell for swearing at the police, and from the constabulary for behaving in such an officious way.” But it didn’t happen like that – Mitchell was forced to resign. The wheel of crisis was set into motion, and there was nothing that could have stopped the public outrage. Because unlike the quote above, the first accounts of the scene reported Mitchell having used the words “fucking plebs”.

Read a full account on Mitchells resignation here: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/oct/19/andrew-mitchell-resigns-police-pleb

Hence, Mitchell’s resignation was just a matter of time, despite his his protestations that what really happened was very different. And it was, as the public was about to find out a few months later. In fact, the policemen set up Mitchell, using the incident to push their own agenda – protesting against spending cuts for the police. A tourist who was said to be a witness to the incident, according to the official police account, turned out to be another officer, who was not there, as a surveillance video proved later.

(For details on the whole affair and the “storyline” look also on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plebgate)

Being concerned with strategic communication, our interest lies especially in looking at the background scenery of such a public drama. The story itself is, for our concern, just the setting in the background. Why was Mr Mitchell forced to resign due to allegations, which later were proven to be wrong? What lessons are there to learn?

Well, it is not always helpful to go by the book. The book always assumes that players stick to certain rules, which they not necessarily do. The police had a clear strategic interest in exploiting and using the incident. And there were certain settings that helped them to make their move.

First of all, the general image of politicians is worse than bad. Everybody believes politicians to be the worst part of mankind. In public polls, politicians usually are the least trusted group. The police on the other hand, at least in Western European countries, appear to be very credible and honourable in general. When it comes to a public confrontation, it is most likely the public will first believe the one who seems to be more credible.

Secondarily, the relationship between the  English upper class and the lower classes is not free of ruptures. With the current Prime Minister, and many of his predecessors and actual ministers and members of parliament being educated in elite institutions like Eton (20 students later became British Prime Minister), elitism is a feature commonly ascribed to politicians. Many people believe that they have little to no regard for the common man on the street. And therefore, it seems only logical that an elitist politician refers to policemen as plebs. Hence, the public stage is set for toffs vs. plebs. And, consequently, the policemen appear to be David-figures, fighting the political Goliath, who, in his arrogance, is bound to fall.

Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Tory Whip Anrew Mitchell (left) in Parliament

Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Tory Whip Anrew Mitchell (left) in a turbulent parliamentary session (Watch at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgxN_cHmdnU)

Thirdly, the crowd stood against the single accused. While the police closed their ranks to support their colleagues, politicians, on the contrary, started to act on behalf of “the public”, meaning that they did not want to generate the impression, they would protect one of their own against a rightful accusation. Therefore, it does not matter whether the allegations are true or not. It is enough that they are credible, to set the machinery of public outrage in motion. And politicians are usually the first to jump on the bandwagon, even if the train is rolling over their own profession.

If we look at the scenery from the distance, we can only realise that this crisis would have hardly been manageable by the means of public relations. The determination and clear strategic intention to set up a perfect victim, which the public only too happily accepted to be guilty without being proven guilty, the bad reputation of one class (the political) against the credibility of a much more respected profession (police – though, not always) – all these factors created a situation that was hard to handle following the accepted guidelines of crisis communications.

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