Jilted at dawn

Aah – the trials and tribulations of a flashy media lifestyle. There I was. All set up and ready to chat with Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB this morning about the Len Brown train-smash. They’d called me from out of the blue yesterday evening to see if I’d be willing to talk about it and I’d lined up a series of dazzling one-liners worthy of the show.

Then, at the appointed time, instead of my ring-tone I hear the dulcet tones of Billy Ralston. Telling my story. But using his own dazzling one-liners. Jilted, I was. Jilted!

And I still haven’t even had any kind of call from those lovely folk at ZB. Not even to say “bugger off, we’re not actually interested in you any more – we’ve got Billy.” [UPDATE: 0945 – I have now. Apology and explanation. Thanks guys.]

To be fair, Bill said pretty much what I was going to say. And to prove it, here are the thoughts I’d jotted down in preparation for my three minutes of fame:

Who’d be a politician, hey? They say politics is a dirty game and I certainly felt more than a bit mucky after I’d read all yesterday’s revelations. I think the big question is: what’s in store today and over the next few weeks…

There’s a race on and it’s between the dirty detail of the story and Mayor Brown’s reputational credit rating.

So far Mayor Len Brown has done all the right stuff.

It’s a tired old maxim but it’s absolutely spot on – in situations like this you need to

  • Tell the Truth
  • Tell it All
  • Tell it Early
  • Tell it Yourself

I thought his appearance on Campbell Live last night was very well done and it gave him a chance to do three-and-a-half out of those four.

He was humble, he was self-critical, he was protective of his family, he said he wasn’t prepared to talk about the more lurid detail of the story and, with one very significant exception, he was absolutely straight-up in his answers.

There’s another rule in this situation – keep your answers categoric. I thought it was significant that the only question he didn’t give an absolutely categoric, black and white answer to was the one about whether there were any more affairs. He answered that by saying: “You have a fairly damning allegation there and it can’t get any worse than that.”  You see, that leaves just enough room for speculation and, rather than putting the subject to bed it just gives the story even more oxygen.

If the answer’s no, he should have said so. And if it’s yes, he should have said so. Because while he may be able to withstand this sordid story it’s highly unlikely he would be able to do so if, heaven forbid, he’s ever shown to have been economical with the truth about any aspect of it.

The ‘Tell it All’ thing is important. Because I’m going to put next month’s salary on the fact that there’s more to come. If it’s more of the kind of dirty detail we saw yesterday, that’s one thing. But if it’s more substantive fact then the whole thing will just grow legs and escalate.

Is it survivable?

A bit early to tell at this stage without knowing what additional detail is on its way down the track. Or what he knows that we don’t.

On balance, as things stand right now, I think it might be survivable. And I think whoever’s behind this knows that – hence the timing. He has a significant power base and I think it’ll pull him through. I’ve got to qualify that by saying it’s based on what we know now.

I think the fact that it’s all so obviously and brutally partisan takes much of the edge off the story. Which of us has never made a mistake or done something we’d hate to have put on public display? If it was 20 years ago he’d have been forced out the next day. But I think we’re a lot more tolerant of peoples’ human failings these days – even if they are our elected leaders. There’s a valid argument about what he was doing on our ticket and in a public building (not to mention some of the more sensitive cultural issues about exactly where he was doing it) and we’ll have to see how that all plays out.

The difficulty for him is going to be if more salacious detail comes to light. That’s just going to fuel the story.

There’s a race on and it’s between the dirty detail of the story and Mayor Brown’s reputational credit rating. If the details run out before his reputational credit does, he wins. But if the details just keep on coming while his reputational credit rating continues to be gobbled up, he’ll lose. That’s why going on Campbell Live last night was so vital for him.

I’ve heard people compare this story with that of London Mayor Boris Johnson who was elected into office after a very high-profile affair and who has continued in office despite reports of others. But the key difference here is the level of absolutely sordid detail involved. It really makes Mayor Brown’s position so much more difficult. It’s the kind of sordid detail which very nearly ruined Bill Clinton.

Where to from here?

From what we know about the story so far, I think he’s done what he can at this point. And I have to say that I think he’s done it quite well.

He’s done the public mea culpa. Now he needs to lie low and concentrate on his family. If he’s serious about his decision to tough it out and hang onto the job it’s really a case of least said, soonest mended.

And, after a suitable period of lying low he absolutely needs to get on with business and be seen to be doing so, rebuilding that reputational credit rating which has just taken such a hammering.

Can he continue with any credibility?

That’s a real tough question. In most of the situations I’ve worked in there hasn’t been the astounding level of lurid detail we have with this story and it’s been relatively easy for us all to get over it and move on.

But with this story an awful lot of people are going to have an awful lot of mental pictures in their minds whenever they meet him. Ultimately he’s the one who’s going to have to decide whether or not there are too many of us out there.

Apologies

Look, I’m a bit unconventional when it comes to apologies. I’ve written about the subject quite a lot on The PRBlog – I think they’re horribly over-used.

It’s good that he’s contrite. It’s good that he recognises that he’s let his constituents down. And, by all means, he should drop an apology for all that into the conversation.  But simpering and snivelling and over-cooking it in these situations is as dangerous as not apologising at all and I think he’s struck a pretty good balance so far.

We’re not the people he needs to apologise to. Really. If you look past all the hand-wringing about public servants failing their constituents and the politics of this whole thing, the people he really needs to apologise to are his wife and children. They’re the ones who particularly deserve his apologies in all this.

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