Business leaders can often learn essential lessons about crisis management from how others in the public spotlight handle their crises. The latest example is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who announced today he will resign when the Conservative Party names his successor.
“Dozens of ministers in Johnson’s government resigned over the past 24 hours as a cascade of scandals finally caught up to the prime minister. In remarks outside 10 Downing Street, Johnson said this was a ‘painful moment, and noted that he’d fought hard to avoid it,” Axios reported.
“The flood of resignations began on Wednesday morning with Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor [of the Exchequer] Rishi Sunak. The last straw was the revelation that Johnson had named Conservative MP Chris Pincher to his government despite being aware of previous sexual misconduct allegations against him. Pincher resigned last week after new allegations were leveled against him,” according to Axios.
Johnson: ‘Them’s The Breaks’
Forbes reported that Johnson said it was peculiar to change governments when it had such a “vast mandate” and was delivering “so much” but conceded that in politics, “no one is remotely indispensable.”
“Though sad at giving up “the best job in the world…them’s the breaks,” he added. “At Westminster, the herd instinct is powerful,” he said. “When the herd moves, it moves.”
‘What Not To Do During A Crisis’
As I wrote in January about Johnson’s first controversy—Partygate— that self-inflicted crisis was an example of what not to do during an emergency. Crisis management and public relations experts shared their observations on how Johnson handled the crises leading up to his resignation.
Johnson’s resignation “provides great examples of what not to do as a leader during a crisis,” according to Moshe Cohen, who teaches leadership, negotiation and organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
“In a crisis, people want to know that they can trust their leader, and his actions undermined trust at every turn. A leader needs to be present and among the people during [a] crisis, rather than holed up at 10 Downing Street, and needs to provide the organization with clear, consistent, and truthful communication. This is as true with corporate executives managing a business crisis as it is with political leaders,” Cohen said in an email.
Identifying Red Flags
There are two lessons to be learned from Johnson’s resignation, Tristan Lemonnier, APCO Worldwide’s head of crisis communications for Europe, said via email.
“First, having been so immersed in a constant state of crisis and controversy over the past weeks and months, [Johnson] and his team [seemed] to have lost the ability to identify the red flags that would trigger this sort of chain of events,” he observed.
“This clearly prevented them from implementing the corrective measures quickly enough in the hours that led to his resignation as party leader,” Lemonnier commented.
A Self-Inflicted Crisis
“Second, [his resignation] was not caused by one event but by an accumulation of mishandled controversies that [have] led to a progressive loss of support and a constant defense mode that was not sustainable over the long run. That reached a tipping point over the past few days, but, from a crisis communication perspective, this is a self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts,” he pointed out.
“There is no doubt that Boris Johnson handled the situation that led to his resignation terribly. He buried his head in the sand and did everything that a crisis communications advisor would tell you not to do,” Andy Barr, co-founder and CEO of U.S. digital marketing agency 10 Yetis, said in a statement.
Johnson “didn’t address public opinion, he didn’t address commentary from MPs, he didn’t rebut any of the false accusations, and, as a result, he was probably totally unaware of the severity of the plots against him,” Barr speculated.
Two Golden Rules
Johnson’s failure to manage his crises over the years “told us that this day (his resignation) would always be ‘when’ not ‘if,’” Ashley Riley, a crisis communication expert, managing director of Ashley Riley Communications and former adviser to a member of Parliament.
“The two golden rules of managing a crisis [are to always work the] hardest to get the narrative back to your objective and always have full disclosure at the heart of your approach,” said Riley.
“The Johnson Government never had an objective. ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Getting on with the job’ were just tactics and didn’t bring any communications stability,” he noted.
“Prioritizing tactics before strategy in crisis communications is always the noise before defeat. I’ve genuinely never seen PR for a prime minister delivered so poorly,” Riley concluded.
The Importance Of People And Messaging
“The primary lessons learned for Prime Minister Boris Johnson is that you are only as strong as the people you surround yourself with and that consistent messaging matters,” Josh Wilson, a senior publicist at Otter Public Relations, said via email.
“It’s difficult to maintain that you have done no wrong when even your closest advisors no longer wish to be associated with you. In crisis communication, it’s also crucial that leaders and their teams develop one concrete message or strategy and stick to it.
“In the case of Johnson, he was often using different talking points than some of his top cabinet ministers, which is the quickest way to get the attention of the public and erode trust,” Wilson observed.
Get The Right Advice
“Unfortunately, rather than swiftly taking control of the situation by acknowledging a lapse in judgment and a roadmap for corrective action, Johnson’s team repeatedly deflected when they had multiple opportunities to show conviction,” Nneka Etoniru, senior director at Bevel PR said via email.
“The Johnson crisis shines a light on the importance of having the right counsel in one’s corner—counsel who can help weather the headwinds, steer through adversity, and ultimately help leaders maintain public trust,” she noted.
Know When To Go
“Leaders should know when it’s time to step aside for the sake of the organizations they represent. An ineffective leader, one lacking support—whether it be from customers, board members or political constituents— cannot perform effectively and can only hurt their organization,” Debra Caruso, president and owner of DJC Communications, advised in a statement.
“For Boris Johnson, that organization was a powerhouse of the world, one of its largest and most influential countries. The last months of his reign represent time lost for England, and that is a travesty,” she said.