A fascinating part of PR crisis communication is how each situation is different, despite sharing some similarities. Both examples below center on what are known as bad facts. In one instance they were reluctantly accepted. For both, their wake lingers.
First is the case of Neil Parish, 65. Until recently, Parish was a 12-year member of Britain’s Parliament (MP), representing Tiverton and Honiton in England’s southwest Devon region.
An agricultural area, Tiverton and Honiton is considered a safe Conservative Party seat. Since the constituency was created, in 1997, it’s elected Conservatives exclusively. A farmer, Parish received 60 percent of the vote in 2019. That was 24,239 more than his opponents. He’s married with two children.
Parish also headed the influential House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Things changed late last month (see table below). Media reports emerged that a right honourable gentleman–later confirmed as Parish–engaged in a dishonorable act. He watched adult content on his phone while in the Commons. A pair of female members from his party, one a minister, leveled the accusation, reports said. They sat near him in Parliament while he viewed the material.
Earlier in the week, Parish obfuscated. While the so-called Porn MP’s identity remained unknown, Parish sat for a TV interview that included the story. Not revealing himself as the Porn MP, Parish said he didn’t think Parliament had “a huge” culture problem. He condemned the behavior, however.
Viewing adult content while you’re supposed to be representing constituents is bad enough, though some argue it fails to rise to the level of PR crisis. Perhaps it’s a PR problem or issue, not a crisis.
However, in the fuller context of what was occurring in British politics at that time, Parish’s incident rose in magnitude, argues London-based Rod Cartwright, founder of Rod Cartwright Consulting.
That fuller context includes another sex-related item that hit the British tabloids days before the Parish incident. This earlier story alleged a special arm of Parliament, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, was investigating 56 MPs, including several ministers, for a slew of sex-related and misogynistic activities.
Within that media story was an accusation against Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, for crossing her legs suggestively, attempting to distract prime minister Boris Johnson.
Though Johnson and Rayner denied the story, coverage of Parliament’s sex issues enjoyed much oxygen that week.
Parish’s story and the 56 opened the gates for coverage blasting Parliament as a bastion of sexism, booze and misogyny. Women occupy just 34 percent of the Commons’ 650 seats.
In light of such an atmosphere, the best route for Parish was admitting the bad facts, apologizing and resigning, Cartwright says.
Instead, Parish faced his bad facts–he acknowledged watching pornography–but insisted on a Parliamentary investigation nonetheless. If found guilty, Parish said, he’d step down, immediately.
The reason for an investigation, Parish and his of wife of 40 years said, was his previously clean record. “Very few men” have not looked at porn, Mrs. Parish said in interviews.
Adult Content or Tractors?
Moreover, Parish insisted he’d mistakenly happened on porn. He was looking for a site about tractors, Parish says.
In light of the context, Parish’s call for an investigation was selfish, considering his party and Johnson already were suffering from sex issues, Cartwright says.
“He added reputation damage for himself and his party.” On top of that, local elections were just a week away.
Even more context. For months Johnson has labored through Partygate, the term of art describing the prime minister and cronies socializing and drinking 16 times during the pandemic.
The soirees occurred between May 2020 and April 2021, when regulations prohibited such gatherings. Cabinet secretary Sue Gray is investigating. London Metro Police’s investigation already has resulted in some 100 fines for Johnson and others. More fines are expected.
To be bipartisan, we must mention the Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, also is under a cloud. Like Johnson, he allegedly broke lockdown rules, for a beer and curry with staff, April 30, 2021.
Getting back to Parish, the investigation of his action was short-lived. Within a day the party suspended him and quickly he agreed to step down from Parliament May 4, one day before local elections. He also apologized. “It was a moment of madness,” he said. “I made a huge, terrible mistake and I’m here to tell the world.”
The story got better once Parish agreed to resign. He admitted watching porn not once, but twice. The second time, he admitted, was wrong. Parish said he was waiting to vote when he viewed porn the second time.
As expected, Parish and the other sex scandal did not help Johnson’s Conservatives in local elections May 5. They lost badly.
In this feature we ask, was a crisis averted? “That is the million-dollar question consuming most UK political commentators,” Cartwright says. The Conservatives want to discuss issues they say “the British people really care about.” But investigations of Partygate and multiple sexual incidents continue. Indeed, at our deadline, an unnamedConservative MP was arrested for rape. So, “stopping coverage [of sex and Partygate] will not be easy to do,” he says.
In addition, a COVID Public Inquiry is beginning and the second half of Gray’s inquiry into Partygate is expected soon. Both are “likely to focus interest back onto the practicalities, morality and ethics of the government during the past two years of the pandemic,” he adds.
As for Parish, “his career as a politician probably is over,” Cartwright says. As we went to press, though, there were reports Parish might stand for his former seat, as an Independent.
[Update, June 24, 2022: Parish did not stand for his former seat. Instead, his Conservative Party suffered a grueling defeat in yesterday's by-election, destroying Parish's 24,000-vote majority. The Conservatives tallied 16,393 votes to the Liberal Democrats' 22,537 votes. It was the first time since the district was established, in 1997, that it failed to elect a Conservative. The loss added more pressure for PM Boris Johnson to exit.]
Watson’s Contract, 22 Civil Suits
We’ll offer far fewer details about our other Crisis Averted example: star football player Deshaun Watson, 26. The Cleveland Browns of the NFL signed him in March to a 5-year, guaranteed contract, worth an estimated $230 million. It’s the richest guaranteed contract in NFL history. The guarantee is significant.
In a game where the threat of career-ending injury makes guaranteed money rare, Watson’s deal is historic.
It’s also controversial. Watson’s bad facts are that he faces 22 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct from 22 women.
Indeed, at our deadline, media reports, citing anonymous sources, say NFL officials will meet Watson soon. Speculation is the meeting may relate to the 22 suits.
The NFL opened an investigation of Watson a year ago. At the time, he faced two criminal and the 22 civil charges. When the first criminal case was dropped, March 11, 2022, the Browns announced Watson’s acquisition.
When the Browns signed him two weeks later, the NFL stood firm, saying its investigation is independent of Watson’s employment status. The league said it could suspend him regardless of what happens, or doesn’t, in court.
Many more details about the Watson story are included here. In short, many people believe the Browns are risking a lot. And the risk has little to do with Watson’s athletic skill.
Instead, it’s all about reputation, particularly the team’s standing in the community at large and with female fans. Says Cartwright, “It looks like the Browns have put [the] business [of winning football games] above reputation.” The team has seen its bad facts and chosen to ignore them for the most part.
There was a flurry of media in late March, much of it condemning the Browns for signing Watson.
Now, a few months later, the furor has abated, at least in terms of media coverage. So, we ask, is the crisis averted? Was it a PR crisis? Is it still?
“It’s a PR crisis in its infancy,” since it could become much larger with new developments, says veteran PR pro Arthur Solomon, who’s worked in sports for years. “The 22 suits will be part of the coverage all season,” he predicts.
Ohio-based Hinda Mitchell, founder, Inspire PR Group, agrees. All season the media, she says, will describe Watson as a player who faces “’personal issues and legal matters.’” His fat contract also will get a lot of attention, Mitchell believes.
The situation was “a crisis [in March] when he was signed.” Donations for women’s groups rose, as did high-profile media critiques and community leaders blasting the signing. In addition, it “created a large and sustained negative buzz around the Browns,” she adds.
The team’s “well-scripted media statements” obliquely acknowledging Watson’s issues “did nothing to build trust or confidence.”
But the Watson situation is no longer a crisis, she says. Instead, it’s a “continuing issue” that will require constant management.
All bets are off, though, should the 22 suits result in new allegations surfacing, Mitchell says. Cartwright agrees.
He believes the outcome of the 22 civil suits will determine whether or not the crisis was averted. Also, in play, he says, are “the rationale given for and duration of a suspension,” if there is one.
For Mitchell, a possible suspension is key. “It will not only call his character into question, but it will also remind sports fans of the specific provisions of his unprecedented contract that protected him in the event he was unable to play.”
Similarly, Solomon views the suits as critical. If there’s no movement on them, the Watson hubbub will subside, he says. The Browns will suffer minimal damage, though female fans in particular will be mad, he predicts.
One thing in Watson’s and the Browns’ favor, at least temporarily: there’s an agreement not to schedule trials from Aug. 1 through March 1, 2023. This means Watson won’t need to deal with a trial during football season. Trials could occur after that. The cases also could be settled out of court.
This agreement doesn’t mean Watson is worry-free. He may need to appear in pre-trial sessions, as he did recently.
For Cartwright, unforeseen elements could come into play. For example, Watson could make undue comments about the suits and trigger negative public reaction.
In the end, though, “sports is its own universe…it sets its own rules…if a player can help a team, chances are they’ll let him play,” Solomon says. It’s also helpful for Watson that he’s not been convicted in court yet, he adds.
Many sports fans have short memories when a team is winning, Mitchell says. “If the Browns come out swinging with Watson as their quarterback, while he will not be forgiven, the negativity surrounding him will most certainly cease to be top of mind.”
[Update, June 26, 2022: Media reports say the NFL will unveil Watson's suspension this week. A 1-year suspension, at minimum, is expected.]