How to steer a U-turn in the right direction

5 May 2016, Blog

“You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” ….and with those now immortal words, delivered at the 1980 Tory Party Conference, Margaret Thatcher further entered the political lexicon, not that the Iron Lady was ever short of a memorable quote or two.

And while the Prime Minister was defiantly not advocating that most dangerous of political manoeuvres, the dreaded U-turn, her quote still echoes down the years to remind us just how pejoratively toxic a blatant reversal of position is for anyone in public life, opening up the poll threatening charge of blatant hypocrisy, or even worse, the career threatening one of lying to the electorate or Parliament, or both.

In normal life, we all can, and often do, change our minds, especially if our circumstances change. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

For politicians, though, such an overt reversal of stance is inevitably seen by the public and the media especially as weakness or deliberate deception – even if it’s entirely justified by the facts. If a public figure is to successfully negotiate the U-turn rocks (or the US flip-flop rocks) with their reputation at least relatively intact, some basic communication devices need to be deployed.

The starting point to steering a U-turn in the right direction is to discuss the issue only on your own terms, not those of the critics. Ignore the predictable commentariat brickbats and, from the off, apply the core interview technique “A, B, C” in all you say, both privately and publicly.

That is, Address the issue head on to explain without shame or apology exactly why you’ve changed direction, then Bridge what you are saying onto the safer ground of the facts underpinning your new position, not the criticisms, before Communicating the clear rationale behind why you are now where you are in policy terms and how it is a much better place to be for everyone.

It can be amazingly effective at defusing and disarming the baying mob, whether in a speech, a news release or, even better, in just a few brief words.

Such as the self-effacing, yet haughty, brilliance of the master Sir Winston Churchill:

“In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.”

Or, in having to explain the inevitable change of fortune or planning:

“Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Even John Maynard Keynes, the erudite economist, when criticized for varying his opinions over the years managed it pithily:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Given the extremely low public esteem that politicians continue to be held in, though, it’s probably best to avoid the Groucho Marx dictum:

These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.”

Of course, the best way to steer a U-turn onto safer ground is even simpler: Avoid it altogether by making sure you are on the right road and heading in the correct direction in the first place.

Ah, if only all political life were so straightforward.

By Clarence Mitchell, Director of Client & Media Services

JBP Staff Member

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