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Lib Dems and Rennard: A Crisis in Crisis Comms

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LORD RENNARD
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Crisis communications, whether political or corporate, have changed massively in recent years. Twenty-four hour rolling news, blogs and now Twitter mean that speed is critical, and leaving a vacuum - even for a few hours - can see a story escalate rapidly beyond manageable means.

Over the past five days the Liberal Democrat party have provided one of the best case studies to date on how not to respond to this challenge.

Initial response

Depending on who you believe, the Lib Dems received news that accusations about Lord Rennard were about to come out either 53 hours or 'shortly' before being broadcast. I'm inclined to believe Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear on this one; partly because in the wake of the Newsnight/McAlpine travesty I can't honestly believe any TV news organisation would dare to not give suitable notice; and partly because 48 hours is around the standard notice period for the subject of a news report to be given.

Nonetheless, the party chose not to respond in time for the programme, creating both the air of a cover-up and the motivation to journalists everywhere to pursue the story further - the first mistake.

Get the story straight, come out strong

Having released a statement, reportedly while Channel 4 News was still on air (and presumably because they didn't want the following day's papers running the allegations without a rebuttal), the interest was always going to turn towards who knew what and when. At this point it was critical that all within the higher echelons of Lib Dem HQ were made fully aware of how much they were involved and how much of a so-called 'Berlin Wall' they could create between themselves and the story.

Maybe this happened, maybe it didn't (and Nick Clegg's either unfortunately-timed, or severely misjudged, sojourn to the Spanish coast won't have helped); but when more accusations inevitably emerged on Saturday morning, the slightly limp promise of an internal party investigation and an urging for anyone involved to "contact the Chief Executive" was never going to be enough for a press with the bit between its teeth.

Ignorance is not a defence

By Sunday morning, the claim that Lib Dem High Command was not aware of the allegations until the Channel 4 News broadcast was looking increasingly shaky. Politicians are often taught to feign ignorance if thrown a tricky policy question, thereby giving them an easy response that hopefully won't create complications later. However policy and scandal are very different beasts, and the Lib Dems' ignorance defence was slowly falling apart.

It therefore beggars belief that Vince Cable was placed on the Andrew Marr Show with the line that he and Clegg had "absolutely not" known about the charges. Sure enough, as Twitter crawled over the allegations in the Sunday papers, journalists and politicos rehashing old rumours and gossip columns to audiences of hundreds of thousands, the story crept closer towards the top. Finally, too late to make an impact on the day but early enough to lead the following day's papers, Nick Clegg admitted he'd known all along and had ordered a probe into the allegations five years ago. Had they admitted this to Channel 4 News on Thursday the Lib Dems might have been able to dampen the coverage, now the story had evolved into a classic political cover-up.

Stay on message

Anyone perusing Monday's front pages would probably have concluded that the Lib Dems had screwed up pretty badly. Sure enough, party president Tim Farron took to the Today Programme in the morning to say just that. Plus points for honesty; minus points for basically admitting you've no idea what you're doing.

Bizarrely, while Farron was talking to a national audience of several million, Nick Clegg was on south coast local radio station BBC Solent. Sure enough he was posed the question as to whether his party had indeed "screwed up" as his president had just claimed. This left Nick desperately flailing around for an appropriate answer and the rest of us wondering whether anyone inside Lib Dem HQ was talking to each other.

Be open, honest and available

Dragged back from the Costa del Sol, bounced into an uncomfortable admission on a Sunday night and then pushed into a local BBC newsroom early on Monday morning, one might have supposed Nick Clegg would return to Westminster to finally put his house in order. However to the surprise and amusement of most, Clegg's next move was an unannounced plane ride to Europe, and a set of baffled press officers. Media requests fell on deaf ears and in the vacuum further speculation has mounted.

And finally

From start to finish the party has failed to get to grips with this story. From the outset they haven't taken the media's pursuit seriously and have been severely punished for it. We can only hope that the accusations will be fully investigated and, if any wrongdoing is found, the appropriate people properly punished. However following on so soon from Chris Huhne and his own cover-up, the Liberal Democrats may struggle to lift the stench of a party in peril.

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