6 Ways Maria Miller Became A Political PR Disaster
The culture secretary resigned after a week of bad headlines that went from bad to worse, to full blown PR crisis.
After days of speculation, she’s gone. But culture secretary Maria Miller was ordered to pay £5,800 and apologise, and duly did so. So why did she have to go? In short: bad PR.
Neil Hall / Reuters / Reuters
The MP for Basingtoke, pictured above leaving her last cabinet meeting in Downing Street yesterday, came under fire from opposition MPs, backbenchers from her own party, local councillors from her constituency, almost every UK newspaper and an overwhelming majority of ordinary people.
A ComRes poll this week of more than 2,000 voters, commissioned by a grassroots Conservative group, found that 74% of them think Prime Minister David Cameron should axe her from the cabinet. A petition calling for her to pay back £45,000 she claimed on expenses for mortgage payments on a house in Wimbledon or resign, had close to 200,000 signatures (she was ordered to pay back just £5,800 instead).
Rather like an under-fire football manager getting the vote of confidence from his chairman, Cameron had supported her throughout. But every time Tory strategists thought the scandal has blown over, they were wrong. It kept getting worse.
Few would argue with this from former Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher. So what went wrong?
One further thought: the PR management of Miller has been the most inept I can ever recall. Far surpassing Major era in total idiocy
1. Her apology was 31 seconds short.
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=9TVLTyOoezg.
She apologised not for falsely claiming money, but for her “attitude to the committee’s enquiries”. She didn’t address the prevailing public opinion, which is that she’d defrauded the taxpayer. By this point, no one cared what the Standards Committee actually said.
2. It was a classic non-apology. As Bloomberg journalist Robert Hutton points out in this sneak peek from a forthcoming book, the non-apology has its own hidden meaning, which is “I’m not really sorry”.
Robert’s book, Would They Lie To You?, comes out in September, published by Elliot and Thompson.
3. The Tories had no positive response and lost control of the story.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Miller and her advisors were accused of being “bullying and threatening” towards the investigation into her expenses related to her house (above), and threatened a Telegraph reporter by mentioning Miller’s role in shepherding the (chaotic and unresolved) press regulation process.
Chris Gilmour, director at PR company Beattie Communications, which deals with crisis management and has represented blue chip corporate firms, told BuzzFeed:
“Because of Leveson, she was going to be singled out. But instead of bullying she should have been much, much more apologetic. If she had paid the full amount and come to her own agreement with the Standards Committee, she could have been in a very, very different position.
“What we always tell people is the best way to get out of a media crisis is don’t fuck up in the first place. When it gets to the media management stage, you are two or three stages down the road. It could have been swept away earlier on.”
David Cameron’s head of communications, Craig Oliver, had tried to make the story about him on Friday, according to Gallagher, but without much success.
4. Miller and the Tories completely underestimated how pissed off the British voters still are over MPs’ expenses.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters
Hoping this would go away was a big gamble that didn’t pay off.
PR expert Mark Borkowski told BuzzFeed: “What we’ve got here is a political class in Westminster who do not get the basic premise that the punters on the street are incredibly raw. The expenses thing isn’t something you push away – it takes years to rebuild trust.
“This is a wake-up call to anyone who wants to be elected. They were blithely sailing through what they thought was a storm, but it was a tornado.
Borkowski says Miller came across as “very bright” but “charmless”, lacking the kind of authenticity the public want to see.
5. By the time the fightback came, it was futile. Miller’s parliamentary private secretary Mary Macleod MP went on to Sky News to defend her yesterday – only to face a Rottweiler-like Kay Burley.
During this cringeworthy exchange, Macleod said Miller had been subject to a “witchhunt” – otherwise known as reporters doing their jobs – again linking this whole row to the on-going press regulation debacle.
People forget that education secretary Michael Gove spent two hours in 2009 at the height of the expenses scandal explaining to his constituents why he’d claimed £500 for a hotel bill and £7,000 on furniture. Now, he’s a powerful cabinet minister not known as an expenses cheat.
Miller’s equivalent response? A feeble statement to her local constituency paper, which was inundated with negative comments below the line.
6. She had become the story. George Osborne and David Cameron won’t be happy that the Miller saga has bumped genuinely good news off the agenda today.
New data today shows that the UK is now the fastest-growing economy of the G7 nations, with a 2.9% growth in GDP expected this year, an upward revision from 2.4% in January.
That’s impressive stuff for a government staking its reputation on economic stability after a recession, but this morning was all about Miller Mania.