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View from the Street: Roaming realities expose the importance of transparency

Fraser Paterson

Senior client manager

The ongoing Michael Matheson saga has exposed some truths about effective strategic communication, principally reminding us that trust, honesty, and a complete grasp of the facts are essential for maintaining credibility in the public eye. The £11,000 data roaming bill charged to the health secretary’s parliamentary iPad not only raised eyebrows but also underscored the advantages of transparent communication in the face of any crisis.

At the heart of the controversy is the evolving narrative surrounding the nature of Matheson’s iPad usage during his holiday in Morocco last Christmas. The initial explanation, attributing the exorbitant charges to an outdated SIM card, was met with scepticism. Subsequent revelations, including Matheson’s admission that his sons used the device to watch football via a hotspot, have only heightened the public’s sense of distrust. The failure to disclose the full extent of the device’s usage from the outset, including to the first minister himself, coupled with the delayed acknowledgment of his sons’ involvement quickly eroded the health secretary’s credibility.

The media’s role in shaping the narrative cannot be underestimated in this scandal and the timeline of events has played a crucial role in influencing public perception. The eventual release of the breakdown of roaming charges by the Scottish Parliament fuelled suspicions that they may have been related to non-professional activities.

The public’s demand for accountability then intensified, with calls for Matheson to surrender his iPad for a thorough examination of its browsing history. It is hard to believe that the drip-feed nature of the information release was welcomed or intended by Matheson and the government, and each new revelation ensured the story remained an anchor of newspaper front pages for several days.

Another layer of complexity, as with any communications challenge, is the involvement of various third-party stakeholders, in this case including those representing the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. Coordination among all entities with a stake in decision making is usually a key tenet of an effective communications strategy, yet this is particularly challenging in the political sphere where parliamentary and government officials are prohibited from working together. This is what appears to have stymied the presentation of a unified and coherent narrative since the first news story broke. In situations like these, the complexities of each stakeholder’s objectives, priorities, and allegiances can lead to misalignment, potentially exacerbating public cynicism and eroding trust further. The Matheson scandal only serves to highlight the delicate dance required when attempting to navigate the interests and perspectives of various stakeholders at a time of crisis.

The support extended to Matheson throughout the ordeal by his boss, first minister Humza Yousaf, adds yet another dimension to the story. While backing a colleague resolutely is a customary practice in politics, Yousaf’s staunch support in the face of growing evidence – and, apparently, without possession of the facts involved until much later – has sparked debates about his own integrity as a leader. Yousaf’s subsequent acknowledgment that Matheson could have handled the situation better indicates a recognition of the missteps in communication to date and a nod to the importance of a more balanced and transparent approach, with the Scottish Parliament’s corporate body now set to investigate the matter.

Strategic communication typically requires a delicate balance between protecting your interests and maintaining public trust. The delayed decision by Matheson to reimburse the full cost of the bill, coupled with the admission that he did not disclose his sons’ involvement to protect them from media scrutiny, inevitably raise concerns about accountability and transparency. In the court of public opinion, the perceived evasion of responsibility can be as damaging – if not more so – than the initial transgression.

It’s important too to remember that this perception can extend to those in positions of leadership, even if they are not the ones being personally accused. The first minister now finds himself embroiled in the scandal with his own credibility and integrity on the line, serving as a cautionary tale for leaders in any industry that if a story like this is allowed to rumble on indefinitely, it will inevitably end up at their door, whether they are directly implicated or not. The public, now more than ever, demands transparency from its leaders and attempts to obfuscate or delay the truth not only damage personal reputations but also undermine the public’s faith in the institutions they represent.

As the Matheson scandal continues to unfold, it provides a lesson for leaders and public figures that full possession of the facts and a swift and frank acknowledgment of them are essential components of effective communication and the ability to preserve public trust. The Matheson saga stands as a stark reminder to those who must navigate the volatile terrain of public perception of the importance of honesty and transparency in all engagements. There is generally more than just your own skin in the game.