In what was no doubt a bad start to David Cameron’s summer holiday, Baroness Warsi today announced that she was resigning from the Government over its “morally indefensible” approach to the conflict in Gaza.
Sound familiar? Robin Cook, then Leader of the House of Commons, resigned in March 2003 in protest against the invasion of Iraq. Whether or not his resignation had any real impact on government policy is debatable. However, Cook will always be remembered (he died, sadly, less than three years later) for his integrity. According to The Economist’s obituary, Cook’s resignation speech was the first speech ever to receive a standing ovation in the history of the House.
Whether or not public opinion sides with Baroness Warsi, dissent is invariably bad PR, whether in the public or private sector. At best, people will wonder about lack of unity and leadership, at worst they will wonder about fundamental failings. Back in May Byfield provided litigation PR expertise to NHS whistleblower Dr Raj Mattu, handling media interest in his victory after a ten year unfair dismissal battle against the NHS. According to the Telegraph, the NHS spent an estimated £10 million trying to defend the claim, even hiring private investigators in an apparent attempt to discredit him.
An extreme example? Possibly. But it comes in the wake of other whistleblowing scandals at the NHS and the first independent review of whistleblowing in the NHS was launched this week. It will be headed by Sir Robert Francis, the chairman of the public inquiry into the Mid Staffs scandal, who earlier this year said that increasing numbers of whistleblowers were contacting him since his landmark report last year.
Hopefully this review will be the first step in rebuilding the public trust in the NHS that has been so badly damaged by these scandals. Meanwhile, what lessons can David Cameron, and any other organisations facing dissent, take from this?
Principally this: listen to the dissenters. Firstly, their views may be more representative than you know. Secondly, with dialogue you may be able to resolve their concerns, thereby avoiding an unpleasant public spat and accompanying damage to reputation. Thirdly, if after dialogue you genuinely believe that their grievances are groundless or out of your hands, you will be in a better position to talk to stakeholders in the event that the row goes public.
If on the other hand the grievances go public before you have had a chance to address them, take advice from the experts as quickly as possible. With an effective communications strategy you can ensure your point of view is heard. And console yourself with the knowledge that some grievances are unlikely to attract public sympathy.