Dealing with the media can be tough. Words can be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Seemingly innocuous comments can create dispute and scandal.
Andrea Leadsom won’t be the first or last to fall foul of the media. What is more surprising is that it came from a senior politician – one of the best media-trained-and-practiced professions in the UK.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, Andrea Leadsom’s point was a reasonable one. By having children, and grandchildren, she has a direct interest in the future. However, judging by the interview, she was acutely aware that such a comment would, de facto, imply that childless Theresa May didn’t. Therefore she directly referenced Theresa May – suggesting it would be horrible to reference her childlessness (and in doing so did the very thing she was trying to avoid).
Given that this was a no win situation, the simple reality is that she would have been better not to get into the conversation at all. Using the classic ABC (Acknowledge, Bridge, Communicate) technique, she should have steered back to her core, pre-agreed, key messages.
However, that in itself wasn’t the real problem. It was her reaction to the article, describing it as “gutter journalism at its worse”. The trouble was that – as the transcripts reveal – the article was factually correct. While one can complain about journalistic interpretation, the grounds for any legal complaint would have been dismissed. There are five defences against a defamation case – the Truth, Honest Opinion, Privilege, Public Interest and Reportage – and the Times could have used Truth or Public Interest defences easily in this case.
By attacking The Times, she made the situation much worse.
This was compounded by supporters making accusations of “Project Smear” and Iain Duncan Smith going so far as to suggest there were “Black Ops” – the common term for unofficial government military actions – being used against her. Such rhetoric only served to further fuel the story.
By aggressively fighting The Times, Andrea Leadsom’s credibility was put under further scrutiny. Hot on the heels of accusations about inaccuracies in her CV, this served to call her judgment and trustworthiness into account.
Eventually, she apologised to Theresa May (but only after 48 hours). She should have done this when the Times first published the article. She could have framed the debate, apologised for using “clumsy” language, and talked positively about the remarkable achievement of two women vying for the Conservative leadership (a simple win-win for both candidates).
Ultimately it's unlikely that this, on its own, was responsible for Andrea's resignation from the Tory Leadership race.
It was already apparent that she lacked the support of MPs to govern, even if she won over the Conservative membership vote. However it might well have been the death knell for a campaign that never really got off the ground.
It has been a sobering lesson in the risks of communication – especially at the highest level. I
t also illustrates, more than ever, the importance of preparation and training. English is a remarkably powerful and nuanced language. Only by practising, training and continually learning, can you perfect communicating to the media.