Crisis media management: PR consultant fluffs his lines as fightback stumbles

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PR consultant fluffs his lines as fightback stumbles

It’s hard to know where to start with this blog.

I’ve just watched an extraordinary press conference and listened to a bizarre radio interview from a PR consultant with years of experience.

Clarence Mitchell is a former BBC reporter who has recently been working as a spokesperson for the family of Madeleine McCann.

Now he has been taken on by crisis ridden Cambridge Analytica as it tries to counter the ‘torrent of unfounded allegations’ (his words not mine) it faces following the recent data scandal and rebuild its reputation.

But this fight back got off to a disastrous start this week.

First up was an appearance on Radio 4’s Today Programme which you can listen to here (2hrs 37 mins).

Perhaps it was the relatively early start, or his struggle to answer the question of why he was speaking for the company rather than one of its actual employees, but Mr Mitchell appeared grumpy, irritable and defensive from the start – not a good combination when leading a crisis media management response.

He really struggled to move the interview on from why CEO Alexander Nix was not speaking, either in the interview or to a committee of MPs, and ended up exasperatedly telling reporter Martha Kearney: “Martha, I am here to try to answer your questions. Mr Nix is not speaking at the moment for the reasons I have outlined.” 

Written quotes from the interview do not adequately convey the somewhat belligerent tone he struck in his answers, but his frustration was also shown in the way he continually talked over Ms Kearney.

Perhaps more surprising were the simple media training errors you would not expect someone of his experience to make. For example, he fell straight into the trap of repeating the negative language in the reporter’s question, starting one response with ‘no one’s hiding’.

And there was the use of language which strayed away from the conversational, everyday tone spokespeople should strive for. ‘Pernicious falsehoods’, for example, would be more at home in a court room than on a national radio station.

What emerged was an interview with little clear messaging and listeners learning not much other than that Cambridge Analytica felt they were victims.

 

 

Worse was to follow when later the same day Mr Mitchell held a press conference, which you can view by clicking here and forwarding to 16:30.

Here we learnt that ‘Cambridge Analytica is no Bond villain’, something I can find no record of anyone ever accusing them of.

Talk about making it easy for the headline writers.

Cambridge Analytica ‘not a Bond villain’ Sky News

Having set out the allegations he wanted to counter, proceedings became somewhat farcical when Cambridge Analytica’s new spokesperson accepted questions from the gathered media.

Mr Mitchell answered a large number of questions – arguably too many (more on this in a bit) – but there was a very abrasive tone to many of those replies.

 

 

One response to a female journalist from the Financial Times began with ‘if you know anything about business’, while in reply to another question he blamed the media for the lack of clarity around his messages.

Reporter: “Rather than this back and forth ‘he said, he did’, wouldn’t it be more productive to say ‘this is what we did wrong, yes we took it on good faith that he was following the legislation and say we are going to put in place checks and balances to ensure nothing like this happens again’?”

Mr Mitchell: “With all due respect that is what I was trying to say in the opening statement. It is the questions that are bringing it backwards forwards to ‘he said we said’. 

 

 

But it was his criticism of the reporter who originally broke the story which was the most bizarre aspect of the press conference.

Asked by Carole Cadwalladr, who he had earlier told not to ‘shout’, whether the fact he previously stood as a Conservative Party candidate meant he was the right person to front this response, Mr Mitchell decided attack was the best form of defence.

Mitchell: “My personal politics and my previous candidacy has absolutely nothing to do with this. And that is the truth. You may not want to hear that because it does not fit in with the conspiracy theories, but that is the absolute truth.

Cadwalladr: “So you are calling me a conspiracy theorist?”

Mitchell: “I am suggesting that some coverage suggests there is a greater global conspiracy at work here, which is categorically not the case. And with all due respect to you as a senior journalist some of your coverage would suggest that you remain deeply unhappy about the outcome of the referendum result and as a result, you are somehow through your coverage implying that Cambridge Analytica has played into that on the Brexit side.

Cadwalladr: “So instead of answering my questions about how you came to work with computer hackers you are questioning my journalistic credibility, is that correct?”

“Not at all, but you challenged me on my political neutrality and my involvement in this so I’m simply pushing back on some of what you have been saying.”

 

 

It was an excruciating exchange to watch and it does not look any better in print. Criticising reporters, particularly the one who helped break the story which trigged the crisis, is not a tactic I have seen in any crisis media management playbook and it is not one I would recommend.        

The final point I would make, and one I found particularly surprising, was how Mr Mitchell struggled to bring the press conference to an end.

I know from my own experience that this can be a challenge, but regularly telling reporters there is time for ‘one more question’ or ‘just a few more questions’ and then going on to respond to many more does not create the impression of someone who is in control of the event.

 

 

The Cambridge Analytica case is undoubtedly a challenging crisis to manage. However, this week’s media activity seems to have hindered rather than helped the situation.

 

*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.

 

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