The Francois de Rugy affair : the example of what not to do in crisis communication…
By the way, it is not the ‘lobster feast’ scandal that led to François de Rugy’s downfall but the accusations by Mediapart of “inappropriate” use of his parliamentary allowance for term expenses. The Minister announced his resignation after a meeting with the Prime Minister, even before the Mediapart article, claiming that he used his parliamentary allowance to pay his contributions to his political party in 2013 and 2014 and then deducted these so-called contributions from taxable income, was published. We are thus moving from a subject of ethics or deontology, and the way of life of our elected representatives, to a potential criminal incrimination.
But even before this coup de grace, Mediapart had greatly weakened the Minister’s position by their deliberate, and highly effective strategy of consecutive revelations. From 9 to 15 July, not a day passed without a new revelation fueling the soap opera and the controversy: lavish private dinners, personal purchases at the expense of the taxpayers in the National Assembly, interior work at apparently excessive prices in the ministry, rental of social housing that is, in principle subject to income conditions, tax evasion in 2015 ; a charge relatively less-pursued in the beginning but one that will prove fatal … It was the media ordeal feared by all communication experts facing a crisis situation.
However, it should be noted that François de Rugy contributed greatly to his descent through his own communication. It proved to be both counterproductive in its form and inappropriate in its contents, to the point of rendering him inaudible.
A cacophonous communication …
As soon as the first Mediapart article was published, François de Rugy was on all media fronts to defend himself… Too many fronts. He accumulated speeches : The morning news of France Inter on 10 July followed by a solemn declaration after the Council of Ministers, Jean-Jacques Bourdin’s Direct on RMC on the 12th, an interview in the JDD on the 14th and a last one in Ouest France on the 15th.
Both the sequencing and the form of these interviews are questionable. The messages follow each other, but are not the same, whereas such a crisis would require a clarity and coherence right from the outset. Not to mention consistence. In the course of the interviews, François de Rugy moved from arguments of authority, tinged with threats, to emotional appeals and then to the classic denunciation of media lynching. To add to it all were the actions of his wife, Séverine de Rugy, who agreed to answer Mediapart orally on the phone, something which should never be done in such a situation, and whose clumsy and embarrassed answers were not in line with written ones by the Minister’s office. And all this before according an interview to Le Point and a visit to the ministry’s private apartment.
The soap opera was already juicy, the Rugy couple fueled it further. In times of crisis, you have to know how to be stingy with your words, use them sparingly and wisely so as not to further add to the soap opera that you are seeking to denounce.
… badly adapted to the situation
“Allergic” to lobster? “Victim of swindling” …by a real estate agency? “Staying in touch with civil society through informal dinners” at the Hotel de Lassay? These are weak messages in terms of credibility which only fuel the visible disconnection between François de Rugy and a post-Yellow Vests France.
The successive positions chosen by François de Rugy were never the right ones.
Posing as the victim – of a real estate agency, of public life, of a slanderous and blood-thirsty media – is difficult when one has talked so much about a new form of governance that is closer to the citizens, that is more modest, sober and transparent.
Could the Soldier Rugy have been saved?
The only thing that could have, perhaps, cleared the air for Francois de Rugy would have been the written publication of the full list of participants of infamous dinners, assuming it did not reveal an excessive number of friends and relatives of the couple, the menu of each dinner, its costs and a detailed analysis of the operational savings that François de Rugy claims to have achieved both in the ministry and in the Assembly as soon as the first Mediapart article was published.
However, it was not a given, and all those who have a political responsibility must understand that, for them, in the hyper-connected world that is ours, exemplarity remains the best communication strategy.