In the age of camera phones and social media, it has become harder for public figures to hide from the public eye. Charlie discusses how two different Prime Ministers handled leaked pictures from a crisis communications angle, and what lessons BC professionals can learn from this.
I have been following the story of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin who was featured in several leaked videos of her partying with friends. She was criticised by the public, as many felt that her behaviour was unbecoming of a PM, since there may have been drugs involved in the party and she might have taken them. This story was compounded by two of her friends, who are influencers, posting topless pictures taken at her residence. She apologised for deeming the pictures as ‘inappropriate’. I thought this contrasted with the actions of our own Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and how he handled media stories of his partying during Covid restrictions in 2020. I thought I would approach this from a crisis communications angle, and look at what we can learn from both events.
Beware the age of camera phones
Politicians since the beginning of time have behaved inappropriately, been drunk, had affairs, and behaved badly. In an age of deference, they got away with it as those around them would cover up their actions, and hide them from the public eye. The age of deference is well and truly over, so all politicians and public figures are ‘fair game’ to take pictures of and publish on the internet. The pervasiveness of mobiles and their cameras means that people have cameras with them all the time, and almost automatically record an interesting event especially if it involves a celebrity. They know if they post the picture, they will get lots of ‘likes’ and in turn, increase their presence on social media. People may take a picture or video of an event to remember the event, almost as a diary, and if the event becomes infamous or what happened is contested, they may go back to the picture, and then leak it or send it to the media. All politicians must know that if they are at a public event or even at a private party with friends, there is a high chance that videos or pictures of the event will emerge.
Decide if you have done anything wrong
If you are going to deny the accusation that you have done nothing wrong, then you need to ensure that this is true. We all know that often it is not the initial misdeed which gets people, but it is the cover-up. Sanna was very robust in defence of herself. “I have a stressful job and I have to relax sometimes with my friends, this is what people, including PMs do. I could make decisions if I needed and my partying does not affect my ability to do my job.” She was criticised in the past for attending a music festival with her friends. There was a suggestion that drugs were used at the party, so she took a drug test to disprove the suggestion that she had taken them.
Boris on the other had vehemently denied that there had been any parties in contradiction of Covid rules, and doggedly stuck to this line in spite of the pictures which suggested that they were parties, and even after he had been fined by the Police. Perhaps if he had admitted to an “error of judgement’ when the allegations first surfaced then he would not be about to be replaced as PM.
Context is everything
Sanna, as the youngest PM ever at one time, will always have her critics. There is a misogynic angle to this, she is a woman, successful, and a politician which some see as a man’s domain. There is also the issue of her age, is she too young to do the role, so will she always have a core of opposition, regardless of her success or failure as a politician? To date, she has been a successful politician. She has been commended for how she has handled the pandemic, and how she has moved in response to the threat from Russia, from neutrality to applying to be a member of NATO. If she was a politician with low popularity, and lurching from one crisis to the next, then her parting might be a lot more criticised and the narrative would be one of Nero, ‘politician parties as the country burned’.
Boris on the other hand has been sacked from almost every job he has had and has a reputation for being ‘economic with the truth’, and being able to bluster his way out of tricky situations. This is ‘baked into' his character as a politician and as he is very charismatic, people are happy to overlook this aspect of his character. However, his self-awareness failed when he and those around him didn’t recognise the enormity of public anger over the breaking of Covid rules. Lots of people made huge personal and family sacrifices of not seeing loved ones, attendance at funerals, and being separated, but they did so for the good of others. This contradicted with those who made and ignored the rules. The public also hates hypocrisy in their politicians and public figures, and in this case, the attitude of 'we make the rules but we don’t have to obey them'. In the end, it was not the actual breaking of the rules which forced him to stand down, but the context in which he broke the rules.
As long as she is a successful politician, Sanna can probably get away with partying, but I suspect because of worldwide coverage and the incessant questions, she may now be a lot more discreet about it or ban mobiles from any future gatherings. Boris on the other hand, when he hands over the PM role at the beginning of September, can party all he likes. I suspect for him, partying as a private citizen (although he still will be an MP), will not be the same as partying as PM.