Andy Coulson: How I became a black-belt in crisis management

Former Fleet Street editor and David Cameron adviser Andy Coulson on the art of communications and lessons from his own personal "nightmare".

The former News of the World editor and Downing Street communications chief leaves the Old Bailey on June 24, 2014. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images
The former News of the World editor and Downing Street communications chief leaves the Old Bailey on June 24, 2014. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

“Strategy” is perhaps the most over-used word in politics and communications, challenged only by the equally abused noun “crisis”. More often than not, what’s dressed up as strategy is, in fact, tactics. And what’s often described as a tactical decision is usually a good old fashioned knee-jerk.

Until I found myself at the centre of a properly strategic problem that was rapidly unravelling my life, I’d spent my working hours swimming in mostly warm tactical waters.

Certainly, as a young tabloid reporter I lived week to week. I didn’t have much of a career plan and I measured my progress by how many bylines – later how many splashes – I’d generated at the Sun. It was the kind of high-octane, exhausting and enormously fun job you don’t hear much about in the modern workplace.

Even when I became editor of Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper, most of my thinking was tactical. A Tuesday to Saturday pattern of increasing workloads until the final, white-knuckle ride towards publication.

Running alongside (and sometimes all over) the journalistic dash to the finish line, however, were the endless management meetings that masqueraded as “strategy sessions”. This was 2003-2007, when the digital revolution was just getting its shoes on, but a time when we all knew, deep down, that our days were numbered. A bit like the first hour of Zulu.

My favourite “strategy” (which, to be fair, was not a News of the World exclusive) was to give away free films with every copy of the paper. With one wave of a marketing wand, we stupidly trained our readers to believe the product we poured blood, sweat and tears into was only worth buying if we put a DVD of Tom Hanks’ film Big FREE INSIDE.

This was a strategy that might well qualify as the world’s most expensive tactic as we paid eye-watering sums for film rights and disc manufacturing. Everyone was a winner in this genius plan except the newspaper itself. But boy, did it make us feel good when the early sales estimates arrived.

As a result, the NoW (and most other popular newspapers) became a DVD addict.

And as editor I spent as much time chasing down the rights to films like Carry On Up the Khyber as I did world-beating exclusives. Like all addictions, it was not sustainable and when the DVDs stopped, sales plummeted at an even faster rate.

Now, a decade and a half later, newspapers have come to realise, through painful experience, that only compelling journalism will keep the ship afloat. Who knew?

Later, when I found myself working for David Cameron in opposition, similar temptations to put tactics before strategy were ever-present. Within the outstandingly talented comms team, I came to establish a straightforward rule: tactics for attack, but strategy for success. There was no cunning tactical route to No 10, in my view. Only a consistent and disciplined strategy. A straightforward story of reassurance and positivity about David and his team needed to be told day in, day out. In short, that he was a decent man with a plan.

As a tight group around David, we generally kept to that strategy until the Big Society got in the way. But before then, we were also very effective irritants, chucking tactical bricks at Labour Party windows in a way that undermined their confidence.

In 2008, David and George Osborne’s brave strategic decision to argue that the country must tighten its belt (in the face of almost global opposition) opened up a world of tactical opportunity for us. We were up against a PM whose instincts were entirely tactical. Strategy, Gordon Brown seemed to believe, was for posh boys. It was his refusal to admit that cuts were vital despite the catastrophe which provided so much material.

Later, when he cancelled the general election at the last moment, we moved in again. “Brown’s bottled it!” was the message I wanted to land far and wide and we managed it, partly by deploying a bunch of young campaigners in ridiculous bottle-shaped costumes outside No 10 for the TV cameras. Childish but effective. Tactical but not strategic.

The strategic comms work was anchored almost entirely around David. That he was, in the language of Labour, a “toff ” didn’t matter much in my view and, I believed, in the view of most voters. What did matter: was he decent and competent enough to do the job the country needed him to do?

The cherry on the strategic cake was the TV debates, possibly my proudest achievement from my time in politics. I drove them through against internal opposition because I believed they would provide a final opportunity for David to demonstrate the answer to that question was a resounding yes.

There are some who still think that the debates prevented David from winning his majority, but I disagree. Crucially, voters were able to see David and Gordon head-to-head.

That was the reason Labour really didn’t want those debates. Instead, they preferred a tactical scrap, using a morning press conference to drive home Gordon’s favourite attack on David and George’s inexperience. In any event, TV debates are now here to stay in this country and I’m proud of that.

Months after leaving No 10 in January 2011, I soon found myself immersed in what was a strategic and tactical nightmare, with existential challenges on an almost hourly basis. And yet I got through it all. Although I lost one of the three battles I faced and went to prison for a while, I also won two others against the run of political play.

I managed that thanks to luck, realism – and strategy. Luck that I met and married a brilliant woman, Eloise, without whom I wouldn’t have survived, at least with my sanity intact. Realism in that no one had forced me to take the jobs I had and that, in one at least, I made very significant errors of leadership. And strategy because I was able, quite quickly, to know that my dramas would one day end. And that if I focused on who I knew myself to be, I’d be alright in the end. Whenever the end came. In other words, I worked out who I was and how I wanted the story to end. And then I began to walk backwards from that point.

And where I’ve ended is not a bad place at all. Dare I say it, it’s even better than it was before – and that’s the holy grail of surviving crises. It’s a point which has been reinforced by many of my guests on the Crisis What Crisis? podcast I’ve been hosting since the first lockdown.

Claire Danson, the former Team GB triathlete who was left paralysed in a bike accident, put it this way when she appeared on the podcast: “Remember, it’s a moment in time. It’s valid and it’s awful but it can and will get better – so don’t give up. Because 99 times out of 100, you’ll get there in the end.”

For the last five years, myself and the Coulson Partners team have offered advice around what we call “the three Cs” – counsel, campaigns and crisis. Along with managing partner Jon Steafel and partner Susan Adams, I focus our offer on leadership level clients – CEOs, founders, chairs.

And we make three simple promises. First, that we’ll always be available; second, that we’ll always have a view; and third,
that we’ll be right more than we are wrong. Those were the promises I made to David when I took the job with him and I find they act as useful house rules now.

The first can be tough and, on the face of it, open to abuse. But not once has anyone done so. It’s a terrific comfort for clients to know that if they need to call you for trusted advice, they can. Night or day.

The second rule, some might argue, is nonsense because surely all advisers have views. Yet that’s not my experience. Too often, when the going gets tough, an adviser will melt into the wallpaper and wait for the storm to pass. Too many default to the “no, no, after you” self-preservation device when it comes to saying what needs to be said.

And the third rule gets to the truth of what it is to be an adviser. If you’re not right more than you’re wrong, you’re not much use.

Although we offer some political expertise and strategic thinking, we don’t run election campaigns. We deliver high-impact advice on corporate strategy, reputation management and communications to CEOs, founders and leaders in the UK and internationally. Our job is to help those clients achieve the reputation they need to drive their objectives forward. It’s about purpose, not fame.

I believe, above all, that my experience (good and bad) can be valuable to others. That if you’re trying to conquer a problem or seize an opportunity, do you want a Sherpa who’s been up and down the mountain before or a novice relying on Google Maps?

Or as Bobby Axelrod puts it in the TV series Billions: “You can watch as many Bruce Lee movies as you like, but it doesn’t make you a black belt.

19th April 2021