News & Insights  |  Posted April 28, 2023

Nothing to see here: Senior SNP figures meet for a pint during party crisis

The SNP is in a crisis, but trying to smooth things over by posing for a chummy photograph has led to ridicule on social media. John Penman, Partner, looks at some of the best, and worst, ways to handle a crisis. 

When you’re in a hole, the first thing to admit is that you’re in a hole. 

There’s a video of Tony Blair buying and then handing Gordon Brown an ice cream during the 2005 General Election campaign. Brown laughs a little nervously as Blair hands it over. It looks for all the world like two old chums having a lovely day out, enjoying a bit of bantz. 

At the start you can hear Blair say “better make that two” as he talks to the seller. “Who’s it for?” he asks and Blair replies in a conspiratorial tone: “Gordon”. His voice betrays that he knows exactly what he is doing. A long-running feud between the two that had consistently risen in temperature but never quite boiled over was coming close to an explosive conclusion. 

Blair takes a bite of his ice cream while a bemused Brown looks like he’s holding an unexploded bomb knowing full well that once again Blair has outmanoeuvred him. This was played out by Labour as compelling evidence that they were still the best of pals even though anyone viewing the video would think the opposite. 

Is this déjà vu?

Those flashbacks were triggered by seeing SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn post a pic on Twitter of him having drinks with his predecessor Ian Blackford on the Commons Terrace. They were all smiles, laughing away together with the message “focusing on the future”. The day before, Blackford had posted something much more critical about his successor on the same platform so clearly someone thought this pic was a good idea at clearing that up. Fat chance. 

The SNP is in crisis, but it's not the first time that political figures have tried to smooth things over with fun photo opportunities.

The SNP is in crisis, but it’s not the first time that political figures have tried to smooth things over with fun photo opportunities.

The SNP is in crisis whichever way you look at it. It has no auditors, the new First Minister won only just over half the vote in the leadership election and the police are interviewing officials up to and including the former chief executive about party finances. And then there’s the difficult policy stuff like the Deposit Return Scheme, ferries that don’t ferry and gender recognition reform. 

No one, even the most diehard member, could look at the party and say everything is fine, but someone thought this picture might help. When you’re under pressure, it’s a very human reaction to want to get out there as soon as possible and state your case but is that always the wisest choice? As communications professionals with years of experience, it’s our job to help people when things get tough but that may also include advising when best to keep quiet.  

So how best to handle things when the ‘you know what’ hits the fan?  

Here are 56’s Five Fs – the Five Fundamentals when dealing with a crisis which you can have for free. 

  1. Figure it out. Understand the problem and take enough time to do it. Sounds simple but one of the most common failures comes from a reluctance to recognise the problem. The Westminster pic was supposed to show the two men were on the same page but it’s not the main problem facing the SNP: that’s having no auditors and many unanswered questions about the party’s finances. A pint and a grin isn’t going to make people think they are the best of chums and does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problem. And while time may be of the essence, still give yourself enough time to work out what to do. Listen to the wise words of Gerry from the brilliant BBC police series Blue Lights. When things look bad, take a beat before you do anything. Even when it feels like you have no time, take a beat. Think about what you’re doing, what you’re saying and ensure you’re prepared. Take a beat. And if not, don’t ever wing it. 
  2. Focus. You need to have a plan. For everything. There’s a video of a BBC reporter doorstepping Lloyds boss Eric Daniels as he walked from his office to a results presentation in the aftermath of the HBOS deal. Daniels just smiles and says nothing. It looks odd, more than a little dodgy and a bad look for the boss of a taxpayer funded bank. That happened because while everything about that day appeared to have been planned, no one thought about how he would get there as it was deemed unimportant. It’s all important. You need to have a clear plan that covers everything and everyone understands to try to sort things out. And have the confidence to consider changing that plan if circumstances change.  
  3. Facts and Fallibility. No it’s not an undiscovered Jane Austen book. We all make mistakes but you will generally get more credit for admitting them than trying to cover things up. Be honest and as transparent as you can, also known more bluntly as “Don’t. Ever. Lie”. Boris Johnston hiding behind officials’ advice over Partygate didn’t wash because no one believed he was telling the truth. That doesn’t mean telling everyone, everything. A spin doctor once scolded me when I accused him of lying by saying: “I might not tell you the truth but I don’t lie”. I knew what he meant. But there is one caveat – only speak if you have something useful to say. First Minister Humza Yousaf has fronted up the press pack at Holyrood recently in a way unlike his predecessor. In general that’s been a good thing but on occasion he’s had nothing to say and it left him in a bit of a pickle. 
  4. Forewarning. Listen to the professionals. Good communications comes from experience and whether it’s your in-house team or an agency, these people will have had years of dealing with difficult issues so they might spot the bear trap before you do. And if they don’t, they will still have good ideas about how to handle it. You might think you know best, and at times you may even know best, but much as you wouldn’t advise a plumber of the best way to install a toilet (or maybe you would), then let them do their jobs. It will still be your final decision and you are entitled to ignore them but it’s their job to advise and yours to act, so still listen to the advice and there will be less of chance of being covered in ‘you know what’.

And finally, the most important one… 

5. Failure is not an option. Never make any mistakes then you don’t need to worry about anything. Simples. Well, maybe not but if you do, you know who to call.

John Penman


Stephen Flynn and Ian Blackford sharing a drink as the SNP is in Crisis