Opinion

How Boris Johnson can defuse media frenzy around late-night argument

As the old PR adage goes, if you are on the end of a front-page hammering for more than a week, youve got a major problem. For Boris Johnson, it is now three days and counting.

The U.K. papers have been dominated by the argument with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, in the early hours of Friday morning that was recorded by neighbors. They say they were fearful for her welfare after allegedly hearing her scream “get off me” and “get out of my flat.”

And some of the alleged details of the incident are particularly toxic for Johnson. Symonds accusation, according to the Guardians reporting of the recording, that he has “no care for money or anything” speaks to Johnsons image among voters as privileged and out of touch.

Johnson now faces a critical choice. Conventional PR rules say that the best course of action is to defuse the situation with a short statement framing the issue on his terms and spinning the situation to his advantage.

Be he has opted to stay silent.

Johnsons out-sized personality, including his colorful private life, is part of his appeal for some voters.

Cue an unstoppable stream of coverage, allowing critics to double down on his colorful past, his ill-suitedness for office and his inability to face scrutiny or account for himself — on matters of policy or personal probity.

So what are his choices now? (The following advice assumes that the incident was what police officers concluded it was — a row that did not merit police action, rather than a case of domestic violence, as neighbors had feared.)

Stick to his guns: Johnson is not like other politicians. His out-sized personality, including his colorful private life, is part of his appeal for some voters. He also avoids commenting on his private life, so there is a consistency in keeping schtum. Precedent also matters. If you address this one, its harder to avoid all future such questions.

The downside to this approach is that he has not drawn a line under the story and the coverage keeps coming. Would Iain Dale, the interviewer at a hustings event in Birmingham on Saturday, have kept on demanding an answer to why the police were called to the incident for as long as he did had Johnson just given an answer?

Conservative leadership candidate Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is interviewed outside 1 Carlton House Terrace on June 24, 2019 in London | Leon Neal/Getty Images

And toughing it out can work. François Hollandes ratings as French president soared on the news of his late-night motorbike rides to rendez-vous with his mistress. “Good on him” was the response of an impressed French electorate.

It was a British journalist who tried to burst the bubble when the French president visited the U.K.

While the more deferential Parisian press corps sat aghast, Chris Hope of the Telegraph asked whether Hollande thought his “private life has made France an international joke.” His waffly response ended with, “Im afraid I decline to answer.”

The reticence of the French press to follow up is not something that Johnson can rely on.

Short and sweet: Make a statement saying “its none of your business, we all deserve a private life.” The advantage is that it acknowledges the interest while providing some defense. It also allows you to move on by saying “Ive already answered that,” when others come back to the issue. Unfortunately for Johnson, the moment for this was over the weekend — before the snowball began rolling.

Attack the messenger: An expert in the genre, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has faced not only media opprobrium but legal action for some of his alleged bedroom activities. His approach was to tackle issues head-on and protest his innocence, while attacking the political motives of those making the allegations.

The wider issue for socially conservative members of the Tory party is that Johnsons living arrangements dont look sufficiently “grown up” for a would-be prime minister.

Some Boris backers also sought to do this over the weekend by criticizing the intrusion of privacy by the Remain-voting neighbors who recorded the argument and passed the tape to a newspaper.

Own it: Were all human and all couples have rows. A statement like that from Johnson could help to humanize him and evoke sympathy from voters who might just wonder how theyd feel if an argument with a loved one was splashed on the front pages.

Whether it works depends on the story and the person at the eye of the storm. In 2006, Lib Dem leadership candidate Mark Oaten resigned from the front bench after the News of the World revealed his sexual encounters with a male prostitute, including graphic details.

As a young press officer for the Lib Dems, I remember our advice was to keep quiet and not add fuel to the media fire. He instead opted for a major exclusive interview with Hello magazine with his loyal wife Belinda by his side. And in an

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