Speaker’s silence: Cunning or catastrophic approach to crisis communication?

Crisis comms: John Bercow silence over Sally Bercow kiss

March 17, 2014

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow has adopted an interesting approach to crisis communication: Resolute silence.

And the curious thing is this: Against all received logic, it seems to be working.

John’s wife Sally was last week pictured, tongue in cheek, with a mystery man in a London nightclub.

While the photos added a welcome fruitiness to the tabloid front pages, they could have been a coffin nail for the reputation of Brand Bercow.

More significantly, they could have dealt a damaging blow to the dignity and credibility of the role of Speaker – one of the most important institutions in British democracy.

But did they?

Instinct tells us that faced with a potential crisis, a “wall of silence” is not the ideal communication strategy.

In IC we strive to persuade our leaders that in difficult situations like this, our best tool is open and honest discussion. Have a candid conversation with your stakeholders. Explain what is happening, why, what we are doing about it. Offer a personal insight – and demonstrate you are in control.

But the Speaker refuses to say another word about a subject that appears, perhaps too literally, to be on everyone’s lips.

He has already spoken. Three years ago he calmly announced that Sally “is not my chattel, appendage or add-on” and is therefore free to do whatever she wants. End of story.

No statements, no apologies, no Max Clifford.

By passing comment on each episode of his wife’s pursuit of pleasure, he might simply add fuel to the flames of rumour and speculation.

Instead, by day two the tale had disappeared from the tabloids and Bercow was back doing business as usual, threatening Michael Gove with lines for bad behaviour and oblivious to any sense of emerging scandal.

This is not what we expect from our public figures, so what is happening? Are we witnessing a master-class in crisis communication strategy? Or is the Speaker playing ostrich and putting the integrity of the British establishment at risk?

I think the former. Bercow’s approach appears to be successful.

If anything, his reputation as a man of tolerance, dignity and understanding, is enhanced – in a world where all three qualities are in deficit.

To seasoned communicators, this demonstrates two things.

First, we should never be afraid to tear up the textbook. Communication is an art, not a science. Use your creativity and when the situation demands, be proud to be a maverick.

And second, there really are times when the best communication is no communication.

In the right circumstances, a dignified silence clearly delivers a very powerful message.