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The Iron Lady’s Weak Crisis Cache

April 15th, 2013

Everyone knows that negative press coverage can be the kiss of death for both companies and individuals alike. The reality is, negative press comes with the territory as a politician, but how that coverage is managed can make all the difference.  Just take the example of Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has been simultaneously lauded as a hero and branded a villain by the press following her death last week. Judging by the wildly diverse responses to the politician’s death, it’s becoming clear that the cacophony of controversy steeped in PR crises that followed Thatcher during her career, and the manner in which she dealt with each crisis, has left an indelible mark on her reputation, illustrating the importance of good crisis communication.

The aim of crisis communications is to contain, minimize and reverse damage in order to turn the story in a positive direction.  In order to accomplish this, it’s imperative to take control of the narrative. While Thatcher’s methods may have ruffled a few feathers along the way, the story of her career can provide a good lesson on three critical components of good crisis communication and the power of a story:

Validate Concerns

The PR crisis Thatcher is perhaps best known for came as a result of the union reforms she instated in the mid-‘80s. While her actions against the union surely didn’t win her any fans with its members, her reaction did nothing to help matters. Rather than sympathizing with union members as valued citizens, she treated them – and referred to them – as the country’s enemy. She exhibited no consideration for the sizeable group of constituents, therefore making her already unpopular decision to dismantle labor unions even more loathsome among many of her target audience.

Show Action

Thatcher was undeniably successful at showing action. She was known as the fierce politician who got things – whether they were good or bad – done. Her career earned her the title of a woman of action, and this reputation continues to follow her, even in death. No matter what the situation or crisis, the Iron Lady could be expected to take action. Perhaps the best example of the strange mixture of praise and disdain in the media can be seen in The Guardian’s headline, “How Margaret Thatcher helped end apartheid – despite herself”. While she missed part one of the crisis management equation, she still took decisive action in critical state affairs. Despite her lack of personal popularity, she was ultimately able to make her reputation as a dynamo diplomat stick in the public’s memory.

Control the Public Narrative

If there’s one thing Thatcher knew, it was this: you can’t please everybody all of the time. In retrospect, however, she could have made better efforts to find a middle ground in order to control her public image more effectively. Baroness Thatcher had a tendency to incite either rage or admiration in the citizens of Great Britain, but rarely indifference. Some proper media training could have improved her tumultuous relationship with Great Britain’s citizenry throughout her reign, thus sparing her a lot of negative media coverage both before and after her death. She was undoubtedly a complex character who was able to engage her audience.  Even in the most unflattering articles, however, there is an underlying tendency to reluctantly admit her achievements amidst the litany of denouncements. In the end, this is an example in itself of how her actions controlled the public image of her; she wasn’t out to be liked, but she did create change.

Amidst this hailstorm of the good, the bad, and the ugly media coverage in response to her passing, one fact is undeniable: Margaret Thatcher “handbagged” the citizens of Great Britain hard enough to still be on the tip of everyone’s tongues, and she won’t fade from the public memory any time soon. If there’s one lesson her life and career had taught the public, it’s the power of a compelling, revolutionary story.

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Storytelling
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