Familiarity breeds complacency

When Ken Clarke found out that familiarity breeds complacency

By Christian Mahne

A textbook “he should have known better” moment. Tory Grandee Ken Clarke forgets he’s in a broadcast studio in front of a camera and live mic and gets carried away in the moment gossiping about the candidates for party leader (and therefore Prime Minster) with former cabinet colleague Sir Malcolm Rifkind. A classic example of when familiarity breeds complacency.

Ken Clarke


After a lifetime in the public eye this sort of mistake is easily made. Cameras, studios and the frenetic maelstrom of live TV production no longer frighten, your guard is down and when there’s time to kill with a like-minded colleague it’s just too easy to open your mouth. Let’s face it, Ken Clarke is neither the first nor the most famous politican to be ensared by the peril of the live mic. Remember Ronnie?


But here’s the real question – was it actually a bad thing?

I’m going to take a stand here and say no, it wasn’t. Ken Clarke has actually done himself and all of us a great service. Here’s why:

We need to separate the general from the specific. For sure, yes, in general terms media training page one paragraph one, “treat all cameras as if they’re live”. Ken forgot that and in spectacular style too. Cue heart palpitations from spin doctors and meltdown in the Westminster bubble. But what he’s done is get the unsayable said. His comments are clearly just one man’s (too) honest opinion. In a lot of ways no different to Twitter or a conversation down the pub. It just happens to be on camera and from someone whose connections and experience command an audience.

I’d far rather hear two nakedly unguarded minutes from an old battler in the know about the true failings of the Conservative Party leadership candidates than two hours of pundits pontificating from the periphery. He has moved the leadership debate on by weeks, confirmed a few things we probably all thought already and entertained the viewers while he’s at it.

So from a communications perspective, what is there to learn here? For starters, honesty is actually a pretty commanding trait. In a world where messaging is manipulated until all the authenticity is beaten out of it, there’s still a platform for the committed maverick (Michael O’Leary, Richard Branson). People can sense when they’re being played and reject it, conversely the unvarnished truth has a resonance you just can’t fake and it’s so refreshing to hear it. So in your messaging, put as much humanity into it as possible. The best spokespeople are your most charismatic, honest and engaging souls, not the ones best at concealing the truth. This is real life, not “The Thick of It”.

One word of caution. If you’re considering the “deliberate leak” as a technique to get something out in public in a manner which simultaneously allows you to distance yourself from saying it then tread extremely carefully. Doing this consciously requires real skill and panache. It is the sort of artistry that only comes after decades of practice in the public eye.

Oh, wait a minute…