The desperate need to get a grip – and how to do it

by | 19 Apr 2023

It is very apparent to anyone who understands political PR that Team Humza don't have a clue what they're doing. If they don't get this together soon we're all in trouble. This is how to get on top of things.

I have never hid my frustration with the modern SNP. I’m frankly sick of its endless melodramas. But I have never failed to be clear that my own hopes for the future currently rely on at least some contribution from the SNP. I need it not to implode.

And yet that is what is happening. You may all be transfixed by incident tents and camper vans but what I can’t take my eyes of are the signs that the team in place really, really doesn’t have a clue what it is doing. If you can’t see that the Yousaf administration is being buffeted around like a sinking paper boat in a storm, look again. It is in control of nothing just now and everyone but them can see it.

Unless it ups its game very, very quickly, the damage could easily drop the party miles below the electoral dominance that makes me need it. So one more time, with my PR-professional hat on and because I know Team Humza reads this, please do these things quickly.

1. Understand the peril

Anyone who isn’t taking this seriously needs to be benched (or really dropped from the squad completely). You are facing a string of arrests of high-profile party figures (the way the police operates changed recently so they no longer interview potentially-implicated witnesses informally but under caution and instead have to arrest them, even if charges for that person are unlikely).

And there are very likely to be charges at the end of this. I have discovered that very, very senior people genuinely don’t understand what is going on. I can’t really explain all of it here because of contempt of court. But I wrote this back when no-one knew this website was here and it explains why the peril is very real. And that’s only on the initial police complaint, not anything discovered since (camper vans etc.).

Act like you are going to face charges because there is a substantial chance you will. And stop pretending this isn’t having an effect on voters because it is. Scottish Labour didn’t think it was in serious trouble after 2007. Pasok in Greece (in power almost uninterrupted for 30 years) didn’t think it was going to disappear completely.

You are all in denial and so long as you remain in denial you’re a liability.

2. Face what’s going to happen and act

You are going to have to do pretty well everything I set out in this article. You think you can take a ‘wait and see’ approach but all that means is that you get bad news after bad news after bad news and then you’re going to be forced to do it anyway. If you accept the peril, you will realise all these things have to happen.

Those who keep saying things like ‘let’s wait and see if there are charges’ need to be taken out of the room. If you respond decisively before people are charged you look like you were taking it seriously. If you do it afterwards you look desperate.

Your problems are real. They are miles out of your control. The only thing in your control is whether you look decisive or whether you look pathetic and desperate. Act now and you might look decisive. Wait until you have no options and you definitely look pathetic and desperate.

You cannot wait. You need to act right now. Overreacting is OK (i.e. more reform than is absolutely necessary), under-reacting is suicide.

You look like you don’t understand your job because you are not doing your job and journalists are asking you if you shouldn’t ought to do your job and you’re saying yes, but then you’re not doing your job

3. Own reform

One of the reasons I know you are in meltdown internally is that you are failing to take seriously the need for reform but you are still getting all the media stories of you saying you need reform. Why? Because everywhere you go you are being asked if you need to reform and you have no options but to say ‘yes’.

This means that you are saying things you’re not doing and it is all happening because the journalists are in control and you’re not. Think of it like this; a fire officer stands outside a burning building doing nothing. A journalists points a TV camera at them and asks if they shouldn’t ought to be putting the fire out. The fire officer has to say ‘yes’. Then just stands there looking vacant.

That is what you are doing. You look like you don’t understand your job because you are not doing your job and journalists are asking you if you shouldn’t ought to do your job and you’re saying yes, but then you’re not doing your job.

Your job is to look like you know this is serious and that you know how to fix things so it can never happen again. Do your fucking job.

4. Keep your leader away from cameras until he knows what he’s going to say

Your media team has Humza Yousaf wandering around doing ‘business’ (i.e. being photographed) as if nothing is happening. I know the team thinks this gives a sense of calm and continuity and not panicking. But the people behind the cameras also ask questions and your leader clearly isn’t prepared for those questions.

He is doing crazy things like saying ‘we’re not bankrupt’. At first day in PR school you ought to have been taught that you never use the word you are trying to deny yourself being (the sentence ‘I am not a paedophile’ has the words ‘I am a’ and ‘paedophile’ in it).

Yousaf gives the impression that he is saying and doing whatever the last person that shouted at him said. He is giving contradictory statements within hours of each other. This isn’t flip-flopping, this is vibrating uncontrollably like a washing machine that is about to topple over.

Media team, your guy looks utterly clueless, like a rabbit in the headlines (read this if you don’t believe me). You have two options. Either you need to work out what on earth you’re doing (see above) or you need to keep him away from reporters. Him and Shona Robison and Iain Blackford and everyone else who is out there improvising. None of you have the personal skills to improvise your way out of this. Stop trying and get prepared.

5. Quarantine the Murrells and anyone else arrested

You’ve already screwed this one up but you can stop making it worse. This ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stuff is just naïvety. Political PR doesn’t work like that. This business stinks and until it stops stinking you can’t afford to get the smell on you.

Wake up. What version of Nicola Sturgeon returning to Holyrood do you envisage? Did you really think Colin Beattie could chair the Public Audit Committee again? You are waiting until your hand is forced over the inevitable. You cannot be close to this stuff just now. You need them all in quarantine.

The problem here is yet again Murrell and Sturgeon. The fact that they did not immediately and voluntarily ‘pause’ their membership of the party when this broke just speaks again of their contempt for the SNP, its members and basically anyone else who isn’t them (since writing this Colin Beattie has at least started to do the right thing). The Murrells need to be made to suspend themselves and if they won’t they need to be suspended.

But not by Yousaf. And not his chief of staff. Or a member of his cabinet. Because this talk of Yousaf catching up with Nicola Sturgeon over a coffee sometime soon is utterly mental. Are you all off your heads? Do not mention her name never mind get in contact with her. I think she’s finished for good but if I’m wrong you can work out how to rehabilitate her later. Not now.

This is very hard for the leadership team to pull off because Yousaf was virtually licking himself up and down about being the continuity candidate. He was on national TV vouching for the professionalism of a man who could well end up in Barlinnie and was even defending him after his resignation. He was leading forced applause sessions at hustings to glorify the previous leader.

So no, acting now isn’t going to be convincing, but failing to act now is going to result in ongoing serious harm. Decide; are you the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the nation’s main pro-independence party or are you a junior press officer for the last First Minister and the last party leader? Choose.

Oh, and whoever has sanctioned this needs fired. An SNP-branded coffee morning with Nicola Sturgeon next week? Are you all utterly mad? For the love of god get this cancelled immediately.

The basest excuse for a commanding officer is ‘I didn’t think it would happen’

6. Stop trying to move on

I totally understand that you read somewhere that the key to crisis is to ‘move the story on’. If you’d read page two you would have come across the many circumstances in which that maxim doesn’t apply – like a crisis that is ongoing and will follow you around everywhere. It’s this simple; you could send Humza down to Fergusons himself and, with the help of the shoemaker’s magical elves, finish Hull 802 overnight – and the news will still be dominated by this scandal.

Your Programme for Government wouldn’t have got a particularly positive response anyway because its most notable features were U-turns and re-announcements. But there is no policy initiative that can get you out of this. Stop trying to think them up. If you have anything good keep it for when it stands a chance of being heard.

In the meantime you have to do only two things; look like you’re on top of this crisis and don’t screw anything up in government. That’s it. Oh, and have a word with whomever it was that put out a press release on Friday highlighting improvements in the experience of people giving evidence in court cases.

7. Think ahead

I was looking for a specific Seneca quote for something else completely today and came across this: “Fabius used to say that the basest excuse for a commanding officer is ‘I didn’t think it would happen,’ but I say it’s the basest for anyone. Think everything might happen; anticipate everything.”

You cannot keep being surprised all the time. You know who is on the list of people who might be arrested. Don’t give them prominent roles (see below). Get them out of the roles they are in before they are arrested, not after.

You know (surely?) that a coffee morning in public with Nicola Sturgeon wearing SNP colours is going to be door-stopped by every journalist in Britain, is going to look terrible, may be a focus for protests outside and could easily degenerate into a rammy inside. If you can’t see that, hand in your resignation now. Either way, yet again, get this cancelled and suspend her.

Do you really believe the party isn’t facing serious financial duress? It must be losing members. It is going to lose Short Money. Are you ready for redundancies? That is coming and denying there are financial difficulties in public while admitting them in private is asking for trouble. Stop doing it or you’ll look like liars again.

These aren’t really opinions – invite in half a dozen crisis management consultants, or specialist crisis management PR firms and they will tell you all the same things

8. Take reform seriously

The reform of the party seems to be being handed over to four people or groups – President Mike Russell, Business Manager Kirstin Oswald, Acting Chief Executive Sue Ruddick and the existing NEC. So let me just run you through why reform run in that way has no chance whatsoever of being credible.

First, Russell, Oswald and Ruddick are all on the ‘might be arrested’ list. Next, Mike Russell was in charge during the events which are now falling into public view and denied all those events were taking place. It is utterly farcical to imagine he can credibly oversee the reform of the thing he oversaw as it staggered into needing major reform.

Oswald is in precisely the same position. In addition there is a legitimate question to ask about exactly how many financial scandals are too many financial scandals given that she is in close proximity (as then-Head of HR) to a significant corruption scandal in South Lanarkshire College. Sue Ruddick was Murrell’s right-hand-woman and was complicit in withholding the accounts from the Treasurer and Audit Committee and the news of the resignation of the party’s auditors from the NEC.

Meanwhile, where to start with the NEC? I should pause and say there are good, really well-meaning people on the NEC but it was rigged so they have no real power. The majority on there are emblematic of the entire problem.

It is totally farcical to task this group with ‘governance reform’ and ‘cleaning up the party’. It looks like a cover-up and that’s because I suspect it is a cover-up. But refer back up – your credibility is melting away by the second and announcing this team as the people to get you out of this drains what credibility you have left.

Plus remember and anticipate; you think you can get away with this because you operate like you think you can get away with anything. But those days are past. Do you really believe that a cosmetic con-job is going to pacify your party conference which is not all that far away now?

Not only are you not doing what you need to do and be seen to put this fire out with decisive, credible action, you are setting up a catastrophic conference in which your membership may be pushed too far and kicks back. Hard. This is more shit you can’t afford. This isn’t your party, you are its custodians, and so long as there are 100 of us still alive (and all that)…

Suspend everyone above middle management, bring in external crisis support, get a respected governance reform expert in and start behaving honestly. Like your party members and the people of Scotland deserve. Or walk away.

Pay attention

These aren’t really opinions. Invite in half a dozen crisis management consultants, or specialist crisis management PR firms and they will tell you all the same things. You’re going to end up doing all of this one way or another. Just now you’re going to be dragged into doing all this and you will look weaker and weaker and weaker as events unfold. You don’t have options. You have to act.

Can you pull this off? Probably not. You just don’t currently have the skillset in your ranks to execute all of the above effectively. Plus you had your moment to really get ahead of this and you spent it doing PR for Sturgeon and Murrell instead. So no, you probably can’t pull this off. But you have to try.

If you don’t then you will be finished by Christmas and the Forbes team will take over. They are ready to do all of the above. Falling on your sword should be a serious consideration. So take this or leave it, but right now you look like scared children in a war zone and none of this is going to get better. Pay attention, because if the SNP turns into a 30-per-cent-party I have no remaining need of it and neither does anyone else.

Now, to make myself feel better about the world again I’m going to for a walk to see the wee lambs jumping around in the fields. A last suggestion; please try not to fuck anything else up before I get back.

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