When I’m doing online PR and social media training and communications consultancy I usually spend a lot of time on crisis communications looking at how it has â€“ and hasn’t â€“ changed because of the rise of social media. This weekend saw a classic case of how a smart PR operator can outflank one of the world’s biggest newspapers.
Last week the Sunday Times carried out a classic sting operation when it caught Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas ‘selling’ access to the UK prime minister for £250,000. This week, in classic Insight style, it carried a follow up with more revelation’s that showed the Conservatives appear to have been ‘economical with the truth’ in rebutting the allegations.
It also attempted to widen its attack and planned a new front page revelation that accused Ed Staite, a former Tory PR operator, of also ‘selling’ access to policy makers.
The Insight team attempted to sting Ed by approaching him and pretending to be a wealth management company that needed a communications consultancy. However, during the meeting the fake business people (aka reporters) continually asked Ed about making a donation to the Conservatives in order to meet senior policy makers. From Ed’s account it appears he advised them against this and instead suggested that it would be better to consider entirely open and transparent sponsorship of things like policy groups and conference fringe events.
Unfortunately for the Sunday Times Insight team Ed appears to be quite good at his new job as an independent communications consultant and demonstrated that his claim to do crisis communications is probably justified. Rather than letting the Insight team do its worst Ed fought back using his blog and Twitter.
It’s standard practice for the The Sunday Times Insight team to keep its victims in the dark until the Friday before publication when it lets them know they are under attack. This way it can say it gave them a chance to respond, but in reality give them just a few hours to respond to an attack that has had the benefit of often weeks of preparation. When Ed received his approach he simply responded by publishing the Insight team’s email on his blog, along with his response.
That’s not how the Insight team likes it. They are like bullies in the playground and bullies don’t like it when the little guy fights back. Ed Staite has worked for the Conservatives and for big global consultancies like Burson-Marsteller, but he’s now an independent consultant trying to establish a business â€“ the little guy up against one of the world’s biggest newspapers. The Insight team fought back with a series of tweets:
Spin doctor @edstaite‘s allegations that Insight tried to entrap him with offer of £250k to meet Osborne absolutely untrue. Tapes prove it.
â€” Sunday Times Insight (@insightST) March 30, 2012
And then even more aggressively:
If spin doctor @edstaite thought meeting with Insight “bizarre,” why did he follow up by sending proposal to charge £40k for his services?
â€” Sunday Times Insight (@insightST) March 30, 2012
Note the derogative ‘spin doctor’ in both tweets. Hardly fair and balanced journalism, even in a tweet!
Ed’s response on Saturday morning was even better. He published his entire proposal (complete with the budget for each element) which turned out to be a fairly standard crisis communications proposal. No better or worse than I’d expect of any communications professional. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.
I think there are three main crisis communications ‘lessons’ we can draw from this:
1) Speed â€“ Ed possibly succeeded in moving the story from the front page of the Sunday Times to a far smaller story one on the inside pages. The Sunday Times was hindered by its print publishing date while Ed was able to publish three detailed blog posts before the Sunday Times even appeared.
2) Transparency â€“ By publishing the Sunday Times email and his response along with his new business proposal Ed has demonstrated what appears to be total transparency. In contrast, as far as I’m aware, the Sunday Times has refused to accede to Ed’s polite request to be as transparent by publishing its recordings of the meetings.
3) Every company is a media company â€“ says Tom Foremski and Ed’s response demonstrates it. More than 20 years ago my old PR lecturer used to say ‘You don’t pick fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel’. Well now thanks to social media everyone has their own barrel of ink. Ed’s blog post and tweets was quickly picked up and tweeted by lots of influential people making the Sunday Times look arrogant and bit daft.
In the interests of full transparency I should point out that I don’t know Ed beyond having read his blog and contributions to the Dale & Co group blog. You also wouldn’t expect me to be Ed Staite’s natural defender as you could probably define him as a ‘competitor’ of what I do and he’s a Tory while I’m very publicly Labour and have advised Labour cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers. But that doesn’t stop me applauding good work when I see it.
In conclusion this isn’t meant to be an attack on investigative journalism. On the contrary, one of my fears about the decline of mainstream media is that it will damage and even mean an end to good investigative journalism. But we’ve got to be careful about treating investigative journalists as if they have a halo- they have an agenda and spin, just as much as the companies and politicians they usually target.
I’ve been involved in handling crisis communications for more than one case of companies or individuals that have been targeted by the Sunday Times Insight team. It would be fair to say that in each case the Insight team did have a case. It would also be fair to say that the resulting story was never fair and balanced and always distorted the facts and used innuendo in order to make it look worse than it really was.