Crisis of communication: a week to forget for top politicians

Who’s had the worst week? Sunak, Starmer and Biden offer lessons in communication with missteps and mistakes.  

For politicians, communication is often about control. Sticking rigidly to a script and staying on message. Choosing when and by whom you agree to be interviewed. Planning your announcements with military precision. From Washington D.C. to Westminster, this week showed what can happen when they lose that grip – through a lack of preparation, a mistake made in the heat of the moment or buckling under scrutiny. Rishi Sunak was pressured into a bet on his Rwanda policy, Sir Keir Starmer struggled for clarity on his party’s flagship green investment pledge and President Biden floundered while facing criticism of his memory and old age.  

Sunak gambles on Rwanda  

Gimmicks and gotcha moments are common in political interviews, often used by journalists to cut through carefully scripted, evasive answers. They’re awkward for the interviewee and can lead to unflattering headlines and viral video clips. Piers Morgan knows all this very well and his £1000 bet with the Prime Minister was an eye-catching moment in an otherwise unremarkable hour-long interview. Rishi Sunak didn’t verbally accept the challenge but shook on it, later claiming he was “taken by surprise.”  Even so, he could’ve avoided the criticism that followed (trivialising an important issue, casually betting £1000 when households are struggling) by stepping back and taking a second to think. “I’m not here to make bets, but I’m confident our plan will work.” “Let’s not trivialise this important issue Piers…” “I don’t need to put any money on it – but come back after the election and ask me if it’s worked.” All possible ways to avoid the trap Mr Morgan had set. It’s hard to stay calm and think under pressure, but preparation and practice can help you deal with unexpected moments and avoid being lured into saying something you might later regret.  

An ill-judged jibe at PMQs 

While it usually pays to stay on message when the stakes are high, sometimes you need to think on your feet and adapt to the circumstances. Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday was one such occasion when a subtle change to the script would’ve saved Rishi Sunak from criticism across the political spectrum. His ill-judged jibe about Keir Starmer’s attempt to define a woman while the mother of murdered transgender teen Brianna Ghey was visiting parliament left him facing calls to apologise. While he was reportedly unaware of Ms Ghey’s presence, the PM had to defend his remarks the next day, in turn accusing Keir Starmer of using the tragedy to score political points. A mess which could’ve been easily avoided and might (just might) prompt all politicians to reflect on their words around gender identity, as the Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt suggested the Prime Minister should.  

Labour’s longest u-turn 

Labour’s long-expected confirmation that it was ditching its pledge to invest £28bn in green projects provided another lesson in strategic communications. Already scaled back, the policy had been in further doubt for months and on Thursday Sir Keir Starmer confirmed (in a gloomy looking rain-soaked interview) that the commitment had been “stood down” – a phrase no doubt chosen for its ambiguity.  Starmer’s team have calculated that short term pain for scrapping the pledge will pay off in the long term if voters judge they’re acting responsibly. It also removes some ammunition for the Tories, keen to paint Labour as the party of tax and spend. But acting sooner would’ve avoided weeks of will-they-won’t-they reporting, exposing disagreement within the shadow cabinet and wider party, and leaving Sir Keir open to further criticism that he flip flops on big decisions and nobody really knows what he stands for.  

Biden blunders in surprise remarks  

Faced with the outcome of an investigation of his handling of classified documents, President Biden had two options. Either welcome the fact that he’d been cleared of criminal charges and dismiss out of hand the report’s claim that his memory was failing, or come out fighting – knowing his opponents would seize on any talk of his age and mental capacity. He chose the latter, and in a short notice White House press conference appeared choked when refuting the claim that he’d struggled to remember when his son Beau had died. Emotion is powerful, it helps us communicate by allowing our audience to empathise and connect with us. But it’s also unpredictable. Confronting criticism that he’s a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, Joe Biden invited further questions about his age and mental capacity, especially from hostile right-leaning US media outlets. And given the deeply personal nature of his answers, maybe his mind was elsewhere when towards the end of the news conference he took a question on Gaza and mixed up the names of the Presidents of Mexico and Egypt.  

With a General Election in the UK expected this autumn and November’s US Presidential contest looming large – the stakes for politicians are high and communication matters more than ever. They’ve taught us, and themselves, some important lessons this week.  

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