DUP’s Crisis Communication Test: Navigating the Storm After Donaldson’s Arrest

When it comes to navigating a communications crisis like the one the DUP are currently traversing, with the recent arrest of Jeffrey Donaldson on allegations of historic sexual abuse, there are a number of steps that cannot be left out of the publicity machine.

This latest political crisis is a great example of how businesses and organisations cannot predict when a scandal will hit, and how it will play out. Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people in the public eye and large businesses to assist them in navigating media storms and crisis situations. At the heart every time has been the struggle between what to say and what not to say and in the information age going to ground isn’t always the right approach any more.

For the DUP, beyond convening their emergency meeting and appointing an interim party leader, as well as making a statement in relation to Donaldson’s resignation, a more nuanced approach is required. The party must consider initiating independent investigations to ensure transparency and demonstrate their commitment to truth and justice.

However, that won’t be enough. The general public will want more, they deserve more.

In today’s digital age, managing digital communication becomes crucial. The DUP should actively monitor online sentiment and engage with online communities to address misinformation promptly and maintain a positive dialogue with the electorate.

Removing political opinion out of it because there will be a multitude of people who will leverage this scandal to progress their political goals (and why shouldn’t they, that is the game of politics), the reality is the DUP will have to quickly address the human cost of this crisis.

This involves maintaining internal communication within the party to ensure all members are aligned and motivated, preventing leaks, and presenting a united front, which is paramount for internal stability and public confidence.

It comes in many forms from the very simplistic “how do we regain the trust of our voters who vehemently backed Donaldson and all he stood for” to the more burning question of “how do we engage with the voters and general public who this scandal has directly or indirectly affected in some way, shape or form”.

Long-term strategies for reputation recovery should be devised, focusing on rebuilding public trust over time through consistent and honest communication, and perhaps, policy changes demonstrating a firm stance against sexual violence.

The public and press will look to Emma Pengelly and Gavin Robinson for comment that means something. Commentary that not only distances themselves from the disaster but humanises them in the eyes of the public. Here, the role of leadership cannot be understated. The balance between showing empathy and taking decisive action will be critical for Gavin Robinson as the interim leader, providing the guidance and reassurance needed both internally and publicly.

What about the people who made the complaints? Who is standing up for them? Who is ensuring they feel heard? Acknowledging and supporting survivors and victims is a must.

What about the “innocent until proven guilty”, how does the DUP uphold this basic legal concept without looking like they are making excuses or backing Donaldson in some way or another.

What about other survivors and victims of sexual violence? How will the DUP prove they care? How will they prove they were not complicit in the covering up of allegations given that a woman was also arrested for “aiding and abetting additional offences” which would lead people to believe others knew about the alleged offences?

At a time when funding isn’t nearly enough to support victims and survivors of sexual violence and the general consensus among campaigners is that not enough is being done to encourage reporting, the DUP must focus on how they engage with their electorate at this time.

The question will be whether or not the DUP can stay out of political mud slinging long enough during this crisis for their electorate and wider general public to believe they are serious in ensuring this scandal is dealt with properly, fairly and effectively. If they get drawn into the gutter sniping they will be seen as diverting attention from the real crisis here, that two people have made very serious allegations of sexual violence against a powerful man who has lived a life of influence in the public eye.

Scandal and crisis isn’t just something that hits the political arena, businesses have to traverse the choppy waters of communications on a daily basis. Those with a crisis communication strategy and plan in place are usually the ones who step up quickly, control the narrative and survive. Those without usually crash and burn.


Tina Calder is a journalist, publicist and crisis communications specialist who has worked for nearly every major newspaper and magazine in Northern Ireland over her 28 year career.

Tina is now the chief vision officer and founder of Excalibur Press, a media and marketing agency based in Belfast.

To find out how Tina can support you confidentially in your communications crisis email [email protected]

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