Over a glass of wine, a friend in a high profile public sector job is agonising about how her organisation should have responded to what she saw as the humiliating newspaper hounding of a senior woman colleague.
It was all part of the unappetising summer of sneering which followed the Parliamentary expenses scandal.
Anyone in a senior role in a public sector organisation must surely share her worries.
Acknowledge any wrongdoing immediately and then act fast to get in control
When a coaching client brings me similar concerns, my first question is: “What would Max do?” I have never met Max Clifford but I follow his PR adventures with awe and amusement.
Essentially his strategy seems to be that you never, ever, respond with denials as this just gives further currency to the negative story. Instead, you start a counter-story. Examples: positioning your client as a loveable rogue (eg, the sexual antics of the former Tory minister David Mellor) or as an unrecognised saint (Jade Goody).
My friend and I then fell to discussing the Teflon Troupe: people who bounce back from what seem like out and out PR disasters. The ex and current London mayors are examples.
Ken Livingstone’s tactic has usually been a withering assault on the moral righteousness or intellectual calibre of his attackers - they simply don’t get what a true believer in [name your own politically correct topic] he is. Boris Johnson is an expert at ruffling his already boyishly rumpled hair and grinning: “Gosh, did I really do that? How frightful of me!”
Former prime minister Tony Blair smiles charmingly and simply repeats how terribly sincere he is. Disgraced former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken confesses all and has turned to religion.
In the brutal world of politics, behaving nicely has never been the norm.
I notice women seem to be disproportionately the target of media attacks. Is some of this about uppity women not knowing their place? Under the kind of sustained onslaught experienced by my friend’s colleague, most would be bewildered by its viciousness and unfairness and want to hide until it was over.
But so often organisations take the harsh line: the damaged person must be sacrificed.
If there are any general rules to be gathered from this, they seem to be: acknowledge any wrongdoing immediately and then act fast to get in control.
I believe all of you in these worryingly vulnerable organisations need contingency plans where a professional PR (and I mean professional, not someone who reluctantly adds PR to a sprawling corporate governance portfolio) takes control instantly.
A protective cordon is then thrown around the attacked person, who is automatically allocated a proper minder, media coaching and immediate access to legal advice.
That would be so much better than the half-hearted, back-footed, defensive response that seems so much more typical.