315: Being called out by ministers
There is nothing worse for any organisation than being called out by a government minister. It inflicts reputational damage, risks networks and relationships, and comes with the hint of future action. But how can we minimise the chance of it happening and how should we react if it does?
There are several pressures that politicians react to so it should be possible to see the level of risk rising. In turn, that means action can be taken to avoid the possibility of being called out.
What are the typical pressure points to look out for?
- Poor behaviour that attracts attention – there is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario at play here. Does being called out deliver the media attention or does the media attention drive being called out? Whichever is the case, your behaviour has forced the minister to express a view and the promise that ‘something must be done’ or will be done.The fact that your organisation has behaved badly means that action should have been taken to rectify it before the attention was drawn to it.
- Lack of delivery – if an organisation consistently fails to meet the expectations that it sets or promises change and then continues to fail, then ministers will feel that they have the right to intervene and make comment.
- Divergence from government priorities – a clear divergence from the priorities or promises of the government will cause a reaction. ministers could see this as a direct challenge on their undoubted authority and react to that. You are making them look weak.
- Unchecked plans – when potentially controversial plans or decisions are announced without government being sight of them, ministers tend to react badly. There is some dispute about whether ministers, or the Prime Minister, knew about plans for a football European Super League but the reaction was clear, brutal and came with ramifications.
- A direct challenge – some organisations may choose to make political comment or be seen to stray into a more controversial area. That then makes them fair game for a ministerial response.As organisations are encouraged to become more ‘activist’ and champion or embody social issues then this is likely to increase the level of political risk.
If an organisation does find itself called out by ministers, then how should they react? Of course, this will depend on the exact circumstances surrounding the intervention and what it has been made. But there should always be an active consideration about what to do and how to react.
It may be right to not say too much in response for fear of antagonising an already enraged minister, but it is rarely, if ever, right to say nothing at all.
That is also certainly not the same as saying ‘do nothing’. That would be wrong. Efforts should be made to engage with the minister, and other contacts, to get your side across. You may be looking to reassure nervous stakeholders and are fundamentally trying to protect your reputation. If you do not do that then the chances of even more direct political intervention increases – a review, new regulations, new legislation etc. If stakeholders don’t hear from you then there is a danger of ‘proving’ your failings to them.
But you may want a fight sometimes. If you are seeking to change public opinion, then a public spat with ministers could be the right thing to elicit. Its high risk but you it may be worth that risk.
Under normal circumstances, we should do what we can to avoid being called out by ministers, but we should also have a plan of action for what to do if we are. Only then can we protect reputations and relationships with stakeholders.