The Lord Rennard affair is in many ways the perfect PR crisis, combining as it does what appear to be genuine operational problems with an undeniable failure to communicate these problems in a coherent or open manner. In their response to Channel 4 news's Thursday broadcast, which detailed damning allegations of sexual harrassment by the influential Lib Dem peer and former party chief executive Lord Rennard, the Lib Dems have repeatedly failed to grasp the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves. In trying to make a molehill out of a mountain, they have ended up looking unforgivably callous.
Perhaps the biggest single calamity in the unfolding megastorm has been Clegg's failure to make a proper statement until Sunday, three days after the leak. No matter how small or ill-understood an allegation is, if it contains any suggestion of systemic failure within an organisation, it must be seen to be foremost in the minds of those at the top of the organisation. As it was, while Clegg lounged in Spain, the internal investigation into the issue stagnated - an independent complaints administrator wasn't appointed until Monday.
More importantly, in the mean time the insubstantial knowledge-denying line issued by Clegg's office began to look laughably flimsy against the publication of a letter by the Daily Telegraph on the Saturday and a Facebook communication by the Mail on Sunday, both of which hinted at knowledge of the incident at the highest levels of the party. When, in the statement, Clegg was forced to admit that he knew something of Rennard's reputation, in the context of three days of speculation following an abject denial this looked like a full admission of guilt, and the next day's front pages showed as much.
When Clegg's statement came it was roundly criticised for answering few questions. In this, it was not so unusual, and any readers of this blog who have had to corral the media in the throes of a crisis will know that this is often unavoidable. However, should this be the case, less is most certainly more. Clegg let his mouth run away from him: in his admission of some knowledge, he specifically named Danny Alexander. This was a gross misestimation of the press's appetite for speculation. Alexander, unlike some other senior Lib Dems, had at that point not been specifically implicated. Far from diverting the press from their current lines of inquiry, this simply opened new ones, and was a key step in widening what might have been an isolated scandal to engulf a whole party.
Following Clegg's admission, Lib Dem response has been poorly co-ordinated. In this, they have allowed themselves to fall prey to the ever changing 24 hour news cycle. While Jasper Gerard was telling the World at One that "this isn't a Jimmy Savile case," he had not been properly briefed into step with Clegg, who told BBC Radio Solent earlier that day that "we'll obviously now have to look at this very carefully," or Tim Farron, who told Today at around the same time that "we screwed this up." Once again, party press officers still failed to see what they were dealing with. A situation like this is too serious for separate public facing individuals to be left to their own devices, even in an organisation which describes itself as liberal.
The Lib Dems have handed an open goal to the Mail, who consequently have taken the ball, spent some time doing keepy-ups, taken a bow to the crowd then hammered it right into the back of the net. Following the Savile debacle and the Lib Dems' last major crisis with Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, public trust in institutions is even lower than trust in individual politicians, and any show of apathy or inefficiency will be read as conspiracy. In that climate, there is no such thing as a minor crisis. It's time politicians re-learned the value of paranoia.