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Reputation management

Matt Hancock and Priti Patel hit the headlines this week for mishandling journalists’ questions about COVID-19.

Hancock repeatedly dodged Piers Morgan’s questions on why had voted against extending Marcus Rashford’s free schools meals initiative in Parliament by circling back to the government ‘sorting it out’ and ‘putting it in place’.

And Priti Patel used a blizzard of words to avoiding answering questions from two journalists about why current lockdown restrictions are less severe than those during the first lockdown last year given virus infection and fatality rates are higher now.

Looping back to key messages and obfuscation are well-known media interview avoidance techniques. Yet Hancock and Patel only succeeded in making themselves appear slippery and evasive.

Both also came across as poorly prepared. Which should not have been the case given the volume of media interviews both jobs involve, the challenging and sometimes controversial nature of their policy briefs, a highly charged atmosphere, and the army of PR support they can draw on.

Bound by collective cabinet responsibility, presumably Hancock and Patel did not want to be seen to be breaking ranks in public, or to appear weak.

How could Hancock and Patel have responded?

Hancock’s challenge was the more straight-forward. After all, the government had already publicly u-turned having had its hand forced by Rashford.

When asked whether he regretted voting against extending free school meals, Hancock could simply have said: ‘Yes, knowing what I know now about the difficulties many families are in, not least in the context of covid, I would not have voted against it. My mistake, our mistake’.

Which would acknowledge the error and provide some semblance of empathy towards poor families.

Given questions from many quarters about the effectiveness of the current lockdown, and widespread speculation that the government would be forced to tighten restrictions, Patel faced the trickier proposition.

Asked whether the current lockdown rules were sufficient, she could have said ‘We are always keeping a close eye on how effective the rules are proving. Whilst it seems that most people are behaving very sensibly and sticking closely to the rules, we may indeed have to tighten them if infection rates continue to rise.’

Handling awkward questions from the media when your organisation has u-turned or may be about to u-turn can be a tricky proposition. But it need not be a car crash provided you are prepared to acknowledge the change of direction and individually or collectively accept responsibility.

It’s been quite the week for apologies. Singer Rita Ora hosted a flashy 30th birthday lockdown party which was promptly shut down by the police. And news of politician Joszef Szajer’s sizzling Brussels (s)exploits burst into the mainstream conscious. Their apologies had very different results.

Ora quickly took to Instagram to express what comes across as a fulsome and genuine mea culpa:

Szajer’s apology appeared two days after he had somewhat mysteriously resigned as an MEP and comes across as stilted and reluctant.

“I regret that I broke the lockdown rules, that was irresponsible of me, and I will accept the sanctions that result”.

His reticence almost certainly stems from the salacious nature of his activities, and from hypocrisy of a kind that makes John Major’s basic to basics frolics appear like a walk in the park.

It hardly needs saying that tone counts for much when you are saying sorry and that being seen to apologise sincerely, acknowledging where you’ve gone wrong, and taking responsibility for your actions count for much.

Apologies and the law

Tonal differences aside, Ora and Szajer’s statements bear one thing in common: both state they accept the consequences of their actions.

This was almost certainly prompted by both parties being caught red-handed by the police.

Yet many apologies are never made out of fear of legal liability, and those that are made often avoid any admission of guilt. And as such they can easily end up as tokenistic.

As it happens, John Howell MP also introduced a private members bill to the House of Commons this week that ‘allows an apology to be given that is genuinely and sincerely meant without creating a legal liability that would run into millions of pounds.’

The policy driver, Howell states, is that ‘apologies can often unlock disputes and lead to settlements without recourse to formal legal action’.

This is a commendable initiative. An apology is already a statutory, professional and legal requirement in cases of NHS clinical negligence. And as Howell points out, apology laws already exist in multiple US states, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Howells’ recommended solution is less litigation and more arbitration and mediation. Again, the prospect of less media intrusion, lower legal fees and less pressure on our overloaded courts of justice seems eminently sensible.

Appreciate who you’re apologising to

All this is well and good in a commercial context in which big money is at stake. But it doesn’t much help ordinary individuals who are left to the mercy of the crowd and, in Ora and Szajer’s case, the mercy of the police.

To date, Rita Ora has escaped a fine, though the restaurant faces a police investigation. Szajer, on the other hand, has resigned as an MEP and been forced to leave his political party.

Neither apology appears likely to sway the police one way or the other, but it may help sway the general public and others, who are arguably their principal audiences.

While Rita Ora may have made a stupid mistake, her apology has won her at least one new fan. Meantime, Joszef Szajer is licking his wounds.

John Howell’s bill will have its second reading in March 2021. A more constructive and less legalistic environment in which an apology can be made freely and meaningfully is surely in most people’s interests.

UPDATE: It has emerged that Rita Ora has broken lockdown rules a second time, triggering a second apology.

By any measure, payment processor company Wirecard’s demise has been dramatic. Within a month of KPMG refusing to verify the company’s accounts, CEO Markus Braun had resigned and it had filed for insolvency with debts of over GBP 3 billion.

Given that the writing had been on the wall for over five years, plenty of tricky questions are now being asked of Wirecard’s management and its business partners. Its long-term auditor EY and Germany’s banking regulator are in the firing line. There is widespread talk of another Enron.

Professional services in the spotlight

Other advisors are also attracting red ink, including Wirecard’s crisis law firm and PR agency. Legal and communications firms generally manage to keep their names out of the media spotlight during major controversies involving their clients.

In part, this can be ascribed to an unwritten convention between the mainstream media and the hands that feed it that says that every organisation has the right to be heard, however unsavoury it’s reputation, and that their advisors are only doing what is expected of them.

With one man’s meat being another man’s poison, it remains to be seen whether Wirecard’s dramatic collapse hinders or benefits its crisis advisors.

However, with corporate governance, responsibility, and transparency in the spotlight as never before, it is incumbent on consulting companies of all stripes to ask difficult questions of clients before they are engaged, not afterwards.

As Arthur Andersen discovered with Enron, not asking difficult questions upfront can prove a perilous defence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed UK government decision-making in a manner not seen for decades. Here is a chronological overview of the government’s response to the virus, with a focus on central government in England. It is updated on an ongoing basis.

The government’s response is seen through a communications and reputational lens. External factors such as health, financial, economic, social, cultural, political, legal and regulatory actions and events, and media coverage and public opinion polling, are highlighted in italics.

Pollsters IPSOS-MORI, YouGov and Opinium provide useful data and insights on UK public opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. For an international perspective see Pew Research.



January 2021



December 2020



November 2020


UK political party fitness to govern, Ipsos MORI, October 2020


October 2020


Voting intention since 2019 general election, Opinium, Sept 2020

September 2020


Approval for UK govt handling of COVID-19, Opinium, August 2020

August 2020


Perception of COVID-19 management by UK govt, Kings College/Ipsos MORI, July 2020

July 2020


Confidence in UK govt, UCL, August 2020

June 2020


UK govt priorities during COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, May 2020

May 2020


Health vs economy priorities dusing COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, April 2020

April 2020


Perceptions of COVID-19 management in the UK, YouGov, March 2020

March 2020


February 2020


January 2020


December 2019

  • 31: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission informs WHO of cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’

This timeline aims to give a balanced view of the UK government’s response to COVID-19. It does not claim to be comprehensive.

Let me know if there is anything important that is missing, unfair or inaccurate.

You are welcome to use, copy and adapt the contents of this timeline. When doing so, ensure you attributeCharlie Pownall/CPC & Associates‘ and provide a clear, prominent link back to this resource in line with the following licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an orgy of news stories, commentary and analysis in which the terms crisis, disaster and emergency have been used almost interchangeably. What is the correct terminology?

According to Muckrack’s Trends research tool, the terms crisis and emergency dominate media headlines and body copy.

These three terms are closely related and overlap significantly, yet each has its own distinct meaning and implications.

  • A crisis is an issue or event that invites unwanted external scrutiny, seriously impacts an organisation’s ability to do business, and jeopardises its reputation. There are many types of crises (and non-crises); research shows most crises stem from management weaknesses.
  • An emergency is an unplanned event such as fire, flood, evacuation, violent crime or fatality that affects an organisation locally and requires immediate action. The impact of an emergency is generally limited to the initial event itself.
  • A disaster is a severe situation that affects broader society and which has the potential to interrupt business operations on a longer-term basis. Examples include an earthquake, a tornado, a major flood or power outage, or a serious health pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus technically classifying as a disaster, it is no surprise that journalists and commentators prefer the term crisis given it is media shorthand for pretty much anything that goes or can go wrong.

Blurred boundaries

Yet the boundaries between crisis, emergency and disaster are less straightforward than they first appear.

The coronavirus may be a disaster for health organisations and inter-governmental organisations, but it is also resulting in serious crises for companies shut down by government decree or mishandling how they manage their response.

And a really serious crisis resulting in significant environmental, social, economic or geo-political damage – think BP Deepwater Horizon – is often termed a disaster (‘a crisis with a bad ending’), or even a catastrophe.

Communicators beware

Crisis teams and communicators, however, should take real care with their terminology. Planning and responding to serious negative events requires precision with what words mean and imply.

A health pandemic necessitates a different response to a workplace fatality or data privacy breach. Different teams are often involved, and each scenario demands different policies, protocols and messages. Activating the wrong plan can be disastrous.

While COVID-19 is growing exponentially, it is no emergency, no matter what the media says. But it is a crisis for some organisations and a disaster for others.

And for a few, it spells potential catastrophe.

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