When I worked in PR, ‘it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover up’ – was our guiding principle, reinforced by our advice to clients: “We can tell the truth in the best possible light, but if the truth is s**t you will still come out smelling of s**t.”
I wonder if these two aphorisms are still true. I have just finished listening to Gabriel Gatehouse’s The Coming Storm podcast on BBC Sounds (strongly recommended). It concludes that American politics is now a battle between competing narratives. There is no such thing as truth and lie, just parallel movies with the same characters but different heroes and the plots presented though their respective reality lenses.
According to everything I used to know about PR, Boris Johnson should have been toast yesterday morning. ‘It is not the crime but the cover up’ and his failure, in the words of Christopher Chope MP, “to wash all his dirty linen at one go” leaves him hopelessly exposed in the latest partygate scandal.
But the Boris PR strategy no longer abides by the old rules of political communication and Chope maybe no more in touch in his advice than I would be today with mine. Instead, Johnson follows the Trump playbook: deny, deny, deny. Create your own reality in which your accusers are communists, paedophiles or foreign agents, whose own ‘reality’ is no more real than your own. You compete, not to tell the truth, but simply to own the most attractive narrative and the most attractive narrative wins.
In the case of Boris’s parties, it seems that he may have finally run out of road: he failed to pre-discredit his accusers and the media has already accepted their presentation of themselves as health workers and grieving relatives, rather than the satanic paedophile cult that Boris would like us to believe they are, out to bring down the legitimate Prime Minister. So this battle for what constitutes truth may have been lost, but the war has only just begun.
It is no longer the cover up that will get you, but the failure to double down on the lie and successfully discredit your accusers. Johnson may fall, but don’t imagine that what will follow will be any more truth-bound than its predecessors.