First Minister’s Questions 17/01/19 – Another teachable moment in comms at Holyrood

In a previous edition of these weekly summaries of the events at First Minister’s questions, we discussed a lesson that communications professionals could take from the encounter – namely, when in doubt, it’s a good idea to return to the basic line i.e. go back to your most essential point and repeat it. While that week’s events were useful as an example of that particular topic, the most recent of the weekly sparring matches between Nicola Sturgeon and MSPs provided another teachable moment for comms bods everywhere – as it stressed the importance of owning the narrative.

From the moment interim Scottish Conservative leader, Jackson Carlaw, stood up, to when Scottish Labour boss, Richard Leonard, followed him, it was clear that one topic was to be the focus of their attacks on the FM – that topic being her handling of the accusations levelled at her predecessor, and erstwhile mentor, Alex Salmond.

Mr Carlaw went in heavily on whether or not Ms Sturgeon believed that her conduct in the matter had been appropriate while Mr Leonard also applied the pressure, focusing on the upcoming inquiry into the issue. In a pristine example of attempting to wrestle the narrative into their respective hands both the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservative participants in the opening salvos of FMQs refused to budge from the topic of Alex Salmond – a repeat of their approaches seen at last week’s argy-bargy.

Ms Sturgeon’s response was, initially, to reiterate that she was dedicated to complying with the inquiry and reminding the chamber that the accusations in question were subject to an on-going police inquiry and were therefore inappropriate subject for comment at this time. She also made it clear that she referred herself to the inquiry into Mr Salmond’s conduct, as she was urged to do last week at FMQs.

However, it was not just the opposition parties taking part in the scuffle for the narrative. The First Minister, aided by a widely-criticised question from Scottish Green Co-Convenor, Patrick Harvie, also appeared to attempt to control the narrative – although in a subtler way.

As part of her final answer to Jackson Carlaw, as well as her response to the lay-up from Mr Harvie, Nicola Sturgeon tried to move the topic of conversation from the on-going scandal around her and Mr Salmond on to the Scottish Tories apparent Achilles’ heel of Brexit.

In fact, in her exchange with Mr Carlaw, she accused the Eastwood MSP of directly trying to deflect attention from the topic of Brexit, much to the consternation of the Tory benches and to rapturous applause from her own.

While other, more specific, constituency questions followed, the over-all take-away from this episode of First Minister’s questions was that, sometimes, what is being said about a subject is less important than which subject is actually under discussion.

If, when the write-ups of First Minister’s questions from this week are published, more people are talking about the unpopularity of Brexit in Scotland than they are about the alleged impropriety engulfing Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon then the First Minister can count this week as a win for her.

Alternatively, should the accusations prove to be the subject that we’re reading about on Friday morning then Labour and the Tories will have to discuss who gets what in terms of credit.

What is clear is that, if this week at FMQs is anything to go by, Oscar Wilde wasn’t entirely correct – there is one thing worse than not being talked about… it’s not being in control of what’s being talked about, especially if you’re a Scottish politician.