At first glance, the issue seems bizarre from beginning to end: Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Boris Johnson, is accused of ignoring the rules that he helped create, travelling across the UK at a time when he should have stayed at home and self-isolated having been first exposed to symptoms of coronavirus and then developing them himself.

Social media in the UK has set itself ablaze in criticising Cummings’ actions, with national newspapers and broadcast outlets adopting a similar line. The media coverage over the last few days has felt extremely Orwellian in tone: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Being sensitive to audiences’ perceptions and views has always been a critical part of communications, providing a basis to engender goodwill or, at a minimum, a neutral attitude towards an individual or organisation. Without it, it is easy to be accused of being ‘out of touch’, lacking understanding or guilty of double standards.

One only need look back to the controversy that engulfed Goldman Sachs during the latter part of the Global Financial Crisis (when then-CEO Lloyd Blankfein claimed the company “was doing God’s work” at the end of an interview), or Neil Woodford gating his funds to prevent redemptions at a time of poor performance to see the dangers of an individual or business failing to demonstrate understanding of external perceptions and needs.

In this context, the government’s response to press allegations and news stories has been even more ill-advised. The admission that the PM’s closest aide made such trips has not been accompanied by contrition or an apology; rather, the government has ‘doubled down’ on its expectation by arguing that Cummings acted reasonably in the circumstances. Cue much irritation from the general public and further accusations of double standards from a population still asked to adhere to strict lockdown criteria.

A previous blog entry here highlighted the key steps to navigate a crisis, amongst them the importance of keeping the lines of communications open with the media at all times, but especially within a crisis. However, in stark contrast, recent events have been an example of what not to do: the facts that have been presented have been questionable; communications poorly timed; the tone used to communicate has been wholly defensive and often confrontational; and subsequent updates have been inconsistent.

The irony is that, with a simple apology, the media narrative would have in all likelihood moved on. In crisis situations in particular, demonstrating understanding, empathy and, where appropriate, contrition, are critical. We are now, however, in a situation where the communication and response are almost as bad, if not worse, as the action itself. Its status as headline news has been prolonged accordingly.

There is much that businesses can learn from this. Crises are challenging and sometimes inevitable, but striking the right tone and responding efficiently can go a long way to calming a situation, or at least preventing escalation. Those who don’t may well find themselves at the centre of their own media storm.