Grenfell Tower tragedy – realities and unrealities in the aftermath of a devastating fire

Facebook and Twitter are fizzing with fury about the government’s reaction and the responses of the local council, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC); Grenfell Tower’s management company, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO); and various companies involved in the tower’s refurbishment.


Much of it is agitprop, deliberately designed to whip up unrest. Much of it is generated by political extremists, always fast to exploit weaknesses in leadership or spot a chance to damage the people and institutions they oppose. And much of it is unsubstantiated by which I mean … made up. Agitprop appeals directly to the naïve of whom there are many on social media, where fantasy is routinely portrayed as reality (or, at least, the exceptional portrayed as the typical). And what naïve people do is fall for this fake news – then spread it. Often with added inference and embellishment.

Numbers, please

After a tragedy such as this, people want facts. Yet, with many tragedies, it can be impossible to give the facts. There is so much that cannot be known until much later.

In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, one current issue that is being whipped-up is “concealment” of the number of people killed by the fire. How can there be concealment when no-one knows how many people were in the tower? All the police, the local authority, the block management company, the residents, anyone, can go on is the number of people reported missing. They will only know who is safe if those who are safe have reported themselves as safe. They cannot know exactly how many, or who, died. Yes, they can refer to tenancy lists but they won’t necessarily include the names of everyone living there. Yes, they can ask neighbours if they knew how many people lived in the flat next door or if they knew about other flats in the block. But they cannot know exactly who was in the block that night. That is a fact.

Without a list against which to tick off names, it is impossible to know the numbers. After a plane crash, for example, it is possible – there will be a passenger list including the crew. There is no such list for a block of flats. In offices, visitors are asked to sign in and out; it’s not like that in blocks of flats (perhaps it should be, but it isn’t). There are also many variables. Was anyone on holiday and out of contact? Was anyone holding a party, with visitors from inside or outside the block? Were friends staying the night? No-one knows. No-one can know. Nevertheless, talk of “concealment” appeals to those who immediately need scapegoats or who dislike the institutions involved. They are ripe for exploitation – and exploited they are by people posting blogs or comments that are “credible sounding”, as one Facebook friend put it after posting a link to a blog she’d read. Credible sounding is not the same as true. (My reading of that blog was that it was a mass of assertions and allusions to supposed people saying supposed things about supposed facts. It was incredible sounding to me.)

Linked with this is an allegation that the bodies of 60 children are in body bags in a morgue. It’s wholly unsubstantiated. As we all know, anything about children cuts straight to our core. Many suspend disbelief. Unable to protect and nurture the vulnerable, innocent young, they are quick to share shocking “statistics” in horror. Advertisers and marketing specialists know this – and exploit it. So do agitpropagandists. That anyone died in this tragedy is awful enough. Exploiting our emotional responses by telling tales that pull at our heartstrings is not a responsible response to any tragedy. At this stage, the police know that 58 people have so far been reported missing, some of whom died while fleeing or in hospital. That is all they can know. Talk of the bodies of 60 children in body bags in a morgue is irresponsible fake news. It also doesn’t ring true after a fire.

Explanations help to manage expectations

It is a grim fact that, in a fire, bodies will be burned. There might or might not be whole bodies to recover. There might or might not be body parts to recover. There might or might not be body fragments to recover. It is impossible to know what might be found, if anything. Until whatever has been found has been identified by DNA matching, it is impossible to know who died in the fire and whether they were adults or children. We might never know how many died.

Given that terrible reality, the spokespeople from the fire, ambulance and police services have not yet fully managed our expectations, though their responses have been impressively responsible generally. We’ve had statements about the possibility that the number of those who died could increase, but nothing about the wider context – the context that will stop scurrilous agitprop: the facts about what might or might not be recovered. It’s bad news. But bad news must be told. [As I post this blog, the reality is emerging with the publication of photos inside Grenfell Tower but the reality’s been far too long a time coming.]

How to give bad news

Tell the worst possible news first to the people affected and tell them direct, with sensitivity, one-to-one or family-to-family and face-to-face. It’s not easy; it can be harrowing for you as well as for the person you are with. You will have to explain that there might never be a body to recover, to mourn or grieve for. And you’ll have to explain why. Bring in counsellors to do this on your behalf to be sure the tone is right, the pace is right, the support is right but don’t retreat into the background. Be visible, making sure that everyone knows the councillors represent you, that you’ve recognised the specialist help you need. Leave all those affected with the same information on paper, nothing more and nothing less. It is hard to take in shocking news, it might be unheard, misheard or misunderstood. Having it to refer to later is essential.

Then tell the public. Explanations help manage expectations – and they help stop the spread of inventive rumour.

Get out there

It is ironic that, the institution that left wing extremists dislike most – the monarchy – has got its response right. HRH Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and HRH Prince Harry – all RBKC residents – were swift to donate money. HM The Queen issued a statement immediately, visited (with Prince William) survivors and volunteers, issued a second statement on her official birthday respecting the sombre mood of the nation on what would normally be a day of celebration, and held a minute’s silence before setting off for Horseguards Parade.

Meanwhile, prime minister Theresa May and local authority RBKC were noticeable for their relative invisibility.

Instead of visiting the scene to meet survivors and those affected, prime minister Theresa May stayed in home secretary mode and met the emergency services but not also the survivors and relatives. When she visited St Clement’s Church, she left by a side door to avoid protestors chanting “coward” and “murderer”. She later met victims, residents and volunteers – at 10 Downing Street. In a situation such as this, you must first go to the scene, to the people affected, to the heart of it, and go immediately. You must accept there will be protestors. You must tough it out. Not doing so will make you look like a scaredycat – and make it much easier for protagonists to be antagonistic.

Small points add up to so much more

RBKC has been seen – and not seen. It closed the Town Hall after a physical attack, and decamped to the Westway Sports Centre and elsewhere, but did not leave information about that on the Town Hall’s doors, leading the BBC to a story, about silence and inactivity, that could and should have been avoided. Put up signs! (It’s not enough to put the information on your website; you must post it everywhere including on the doors.) Depending on the state of the damage, it might have been wiser to stay put with increased security – so it is clear the council is at work and active. Just as importantly, this soon after a crisis, the press office should be operating round the clock, and accompanying journalists to offices and other places of activity, not leaving them to find locked doors and inactivity. Call in extra people to support your communications.

Additionally, although leader Nick Paget-Brown speaks effectively in television interviews, though some will inevitably question the veracity of his comments, it is never appropriate to appear after a disaster in an open-necked casual weekend shirt. Wear a sober tie and a suit. Even on a day as hot as today. It is not about your comfort, it is about respect for those affected by the incident. He is of course in shock and sleep-deprived and therefore, as anyone else would be, prone to acting strangely. But wearing the right clothes should be an automatic action. It’s drummed into you in media training. It’s about impressions and, if you need to be believed, you need to look credible.

Avoid making the crazy crazier

There is much more to be said about the responses to this terrible tragedy that have provided the opportunities for agitating propagandists to destabilise those responsible for responding. Ultimately, it all comes down to communication.

As American journalist and satirist, the late H L Mencken, said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” As we’ve seen from inaccurate, sometimes scurrilous, comments posing as facts, it applies to social media, too.

  • Be prepared for fantastical claims and counter them with confirmed and verifiable facts – naivete spreads unrest.
  • Give bad news and unpalatable facts direct to those affected, in person first and on paper for clarification – it can be hard to listen to, and absorb, horrible news.
  • Minimise unrest by communicating authoritatively, visibly and regularly – arrange fixed-time (daily, perhaps twice-daily) meetings with each group separately so everyone has first-hand facts and can ask questions – being visible, informative and accountable will encourage confidence in your leadership.
  • Manage expectations by explaining to everyone, including the public, realities including the unpalatable facts given to those affected – this will help reduce the opportunities for scurrilous information to be spread.
  • Publicise facts – all the facts – as soon as they emerge – openness, honesty and transparency should be your guide.
  • Be available and visible round the clock for as long as is appropriate even in the face of anger and protest – this is not the time to be complacent or to run and hide.
  • Tell everyone, in every way possible, that you are available – it’s the small things, such as signs on doors, that can make the difference.
  • Be respectful – wear clothes appropriate to the situation even in the hottest heat or at the weekend.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – call in extra people to support your communications and keep telling people what you are doing using every means possible.

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David Cameron should know you can’t spin yourself out of a reputation crisis

Here we go again, again. Another public figure thinks it’s possible to use spin to manage a reputation crisis. It’s not. It never is. And what might seem surprising to many is that David Cameron’s background is in PR; surely he’d know how to deal with a crisis?

Unfortunately, the two – PR and reputation crisis management – are not the same. Although you need to use some PR methods to get your message across in a reputation crisis – press statements, speeches, publishing evidence – you can’t use others.

Much of PR is about telling the good bits of a story – that’s spin. The less good bits, which might not be so palatable, are left out. We see it everyday in, for example, supermarkets engaging in price wars or shops offering cheaper goods. Advertisements tell us that the cost of one supermarket’s chicken, breakfast cereal or carrots is lower than another’s. What those adverts don’t tell us is how the supermarket has brought those prices down. It’s unlikely to be senior leadership taking pay cuts or shareholders sacrificing their dividends. It’s highly likely it will be by reducing the price at the farm gate – paying the farmer less or finding a farmer with lower (less expensive) standards. Many people don’t bother to think through the implications of a low price; they just buy cheap. Based on a partial story.

You can’t secure a good reputation – or recover from a reputation crisis – using a partial story. When David Cameron, caught up in the Panama Papers revelations, stated that he, his wife and his children “do not benefit from any offshore funds” there can’t have been many people who didn’t scratch their heads thinking about his use of the present tense. If his father had invested in an offshore fund, as revealed by the Panama Papers, how could David Cameron not have benefited from it, either when his father was alive or after his father’s death? It seems impossible for him not to have benefited, directly or indirectly, doesn’t it? If he benefited before he was prime minister, why not say so? It indicates privilege, yes, but not necessarily hypocrisy. Dealing with it so simplistically – without giving us facts and figures – made us want to know more. Trying to clarify it later, while appearing full and frank and saying he’d learned a lesson – made it worse because he still left questions (voiced or silent) unanswered. Again, he wasn’t straight with us. He gave us a partial story. It was spin.

What happened next? He clearly hadn’t learned a lesson as, even after what he implied was a final all embracing confession, it emerged that his full story was very much less than that. There was more to come – and journalists, who are paid to get to the bottom of stories, dug away and found it.

Have we heard it all? Given that it has been so painfully difficult getting to the facts we have been given so far, it’s hard to be sure. What is certain is that David Cameron has damaged his own reputation by misusing PR. He should have known better.

There are some very simple rules when faced with a reputation crisis:

  • never lie – the truth will emerge and you will be found out;
  • never fudge – someone will spot the holes and work hard to fill them;
  • get all the bad news out at once – if there is a full story, give it in one go; if you need time to find out all the facts, say so – then do your research, as speedily as you can, and tell it like it is.

Spin is no use in a reputation crisis. The only way to manage a reputation crisis is by being open, honest and straightforward. If you value your reputation, don’t use cheap tricks. It isn’t a supermarket price war.

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What price for an apology, Thomas Cook?

Here we go again. Another business that has failed in its corporate duty, this time holiday company Thomas Cook, won’t say sorry.

Nearly nine years ago, in October 2006, two young children – six year old Bobby and seven year old Christi Shepherd – died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Two adults, the children’s father Neil Shepherd and his then partner now wife Ruth, were found unconscious and near death in a bungalow in the grounds of a hotel in Corfu.

Yes, the faulty boiler was the responsibility of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel in Corfu – that they are to blame is without doubt and, in 2010, three of its employees were found guilty of manslaughter. But travellers expect companies such as Thomas Cook, self-described as “the best-known name in travel” and in business for 174 years, to check that the hotels it recommends are safe. The hotel was found to have misled or lied to Thomas Cook about gas in the hotel. But Thomas Cook was found not to have conducted tests itself. There was no apology when the tragedy happened and no apology after the trial in Corfu.

Last week, Thomas Cook was given another chance to apologise. So what did the chief executive say? “We have nothing to apologise for.”

Now, the morning after the inquest jury delivered its damning verdict, and despite very tough words making very tough headlines including on national television news, Thomas Cook still hasn’t apologised. It should “hang its head in shame” the lawyer representing the children’s parents said. It “breached its duty of care” the jury found. The children’s mother, Sharon Wood, said of Thomas Cook, “I will always hold Thomas Cook responsible for their deaths”. And still no apology.

When would Thomas Cook think it is appropriate to say sorry? How many deaths would it take? What age must the children be? Should adults die too?

There are wider implications, as there often are with corporate reputation crises. The coroner is expected to make recommendations to the whole travel industry – and rightly so. One company’s devastating error is a potential reputation crisis for others. Other travel companies should already be busy reviewing their risk assessments, revising their policies, and implementing actions that minimise risks not only from decrepit boilers but also across every possible aspect of the travel industry. Travel companies owe it to travellers – that’s you and me – to take appropriate care including by doing all they can to ensure third parties don’t put us at risk.

A look at Thomas Cook’s website just now shows that there is nothing on it about this tragedy. Not a word of regret – not in 2006, not in 2010, not now – and, of course, no apology. Instead, the home page states that holiday-makers can “escape the everyday, enjoy new experiences, indulge in relaxation and focus on quality time with your family and friends”. It tells us to “Trust Thomas Cook to make your holidays truly special” and that “There are no compromises to be made on a Thomas Cook holiday”. I can’t imagine that Neil and Ruth Shepherd and Sharon Wood find those words easy to read.

That’s not the only website calamity. The most recent press release, published in February, invites Thomas Cook customers to create their own personalised holiday brochure cover, from their holiday memories, for a chance to win a dream holiday. Even in good times, this sort of competition opens businesses up to criticism. There will always be some complaints; there will always be people who want to get some revenge for their mistreatment by entering negative examples; competitions, borne out of corporate arrogance, can go disastrously wrong. “Whether it’s a portrait of quality time together as a family or a snapshot of a group of friends simply having fun, customers can celebrate their real good times abroad,” the blurb says. What will the Shepherd and Wood families make of that?

Thomas Cook may well have taken steps since 2006 to be more careful about where it sends its dream-holiday-seekers but that isn’t enough. For a business that has been in business since 1841, it appears to have learned very little about taking responsibility – which it must do and fast.

The word ‘sorry’ remains the largest tag in my blog because of its absence in words spoken when dealing with a reputation crisis. Time after time, businesses and people fail to take responsibility for their actions or inactions; they fail to say sorry. Yet, saying sorry – at least apologising for what has happened, even if the company or people concerned aren’t to blame for failings and can’t say ‘sorry we did it’ – is the single most important action to take to minimise damage to reputation. If Thomas Cook wants to rebuild its reputation, it must say sorry.

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Lack of trust in the police – a massive reputation crisis to be tackled shift by shift

I’ve been collecting press cuttings on police misdemeanours for three or so years. They stack up quickly – and I don’t mean those about its huge failings (Hillsborough; Stephen Lawrence; Ian Tomlinson; Milly Dowler and phone hacking; leaking or selling information to the News of the World; Andrew Mitchell MP and Plebgate/Plodgate;) but many more smaller injustices meted out by the police in response, or not, to pleas of help from ordinary, law-abiding citizens in everyday situations.

They build a very clear picture. Trust in the police has been eroding over decades – unsurprisingly.

I’ve expressed my feelings of lack of trust – indeed, mistrust – to several friends and been rebuffed. “Oh, no. You’ve got it wrong,” they said. “The police do a great job in very difficult circumstances. This (whichever misdeed I’ve mentioned) is just a one-off.” I agree with the difficult circumstances bit (but that is presumably where training comes in, followed by experience and good leadership) but the rest is complacent piffle. And it is complacent piffle, from the public and politicians, that has allowed the police’s record to drift into disgrace.

The last time I was forced into silence before I’d even got into my stride was with two friends, both ex-Army or similar (and let’s not start a debate about the Army and trust … I live not far from Deep Cut), whose views were bucolic, and I mean that precisely. Living in small rural parishes surrounded by farmland, where even domestic burglary doesn’t happen often if at all, their experience of the police is of the local bobby on the beat, or dropping in on the local fête, plodding or clip-clopping past with a cheery smile and nothing much else to do all day and certainly nothing to do with the urban world many more of us live in – with experience of the police letting us down.


It started when I was a teenager. Strolling with a friend in open doggy walkland, my handbag was snatched. The police did nothing beyond taking information and saying it wasn’t worth pursuing. To a girl, a handbag means two things: the contents (a little cash, bits and pieces of no consequence) and the bag itself (expensive and very of-the-time-cool). The bag mattered most. A few days later, another stroller found the handbag, took it to our then local grocer (this was in the days when grocers were a part of daily life and the community) who rang to let me know. Only the cash was gone. The bag was a bit soggy but dried out. The stroller and the grocer were appropriately thanked.  One happy girl – with a very clear first impression of the police.

Finders’ not keepers

I’ll spare you the details of the incident of the extremely valuable gold watch I found in the gutter outside Harvey Nichols which I was told, on taking it to the police station, would be mine if it wasn’t claimed within six weeks – which was then “claimed” between me ringing to ask if it had been claimed (and being told it hadn’t) and arriving at the police station to collect it five minutes later. There was no message of thanks from, or signature of, the apparent claimant mysteriously emerging five minutes before the deadline to prove it was honestly claimed. I reckoned I knew where it went.

Disbelieved and unbelievable

Then there was the time I lived above a restaurant which repeatedly breached its license causing massive disruption long into the night even before the noisy closing up process began. After weeks of this, and having tried the friendly neighbour approach, I called the police who claimed to be outside the restaurant while telling me it was closed with no customers in it or noise coming from it. Looking out of my window there was no policeman to be seen; the restaurant was in full swing. I wondered whether cases of wine regularly turned up at the police station to keep them on side. If this were the US, this would be the third strike with me and the police force’s reputation would be out; it was certainly on borrowed time in my world.

Lies, damned lies and misrepresentation

Worst of all was during my two stints at jury service. It was clear during one case that the policeman giving evidence was lying. His contemporaneous notes were written in such good prose (perfectly crafted sentences, not a record taken quickly while in the middle of an incident, and vividly unlikely) that the whole jury recognised he was not telling the truth. Didn’t his sergeant, the whole station, know he had fabricated his story? In a separate case, I noticed a policewoman supporting her colleague in court was engrossed in reading the Police Review while the case proceeded. Rather too engrossed, it seemed to me. When we, the jurors, were sent out mid-trial we passed this WPC and, glancing sideways, I noticed that the Police Review was merely a front; it was hiding a woman’s magazine. She was being paid to be there and pretending to be professional; we jurors, unpaid, were taking our role seriously.


Finally … the theft of irreplaceable and valuable architectural features from 13 neighbouring houses – to which the police response was wholly inadequate; the local desk officer did not grasp the architectural, financial and community significance of the incident and did nothing; follow up calls went nowhere. Who in the local police hierarchy decided it wasn’t worth the bother and why?

The small stuff matters

The problem is that the police didn’t, unlike me, sweat the small stuff, which is what you will be thinking my anecdotes are all about. Yes, they are, but it is the small stuff that builds trust. Grand gestures – breakthroughs in major crimes, flushing out dangerous criminals, exposing civilians who lie about their involvement in a crime – are important, of course, but if individuals in their thousands, perhaps millions, are on the receiving end of a shoddy service – of laziness, lies, misrepresentation, lack of interest, self-interest … as evidenced in my cuttings file – it doesn’t matter how many big successes there are. We, the masses, have little or no trust.

We know that if ordinary PCs and WPCs can get away with this sort of bad behaviour, it is being endorsed by those higher up the ranks. It is leaders who set the culture; if they are weak, others will misbehave; if they bend the rules, others will break them; if they don’t set, monitor, nurture and reward an appropriate and professional culture, anarchy will overrule.

Disagree but don’t deny

There will be some who read this shaking their heads in disagreement. Of course the police do get it right some of the time but that doesn’t mean that it never gets anything wrong. To deny that the police force’s reputation isn’t seriously damaged – and in crisis – is to deny the facts. Just like the police.

No ringing endorsement

The post Plebgate/Plodgate ComRes survey for the BBC has been reported widely – in selective snapshot. So here’s another. The most significant results that the police should focus on are not just that one in four (25 per cent) of us is now less likely to trust the police (that is in addition to those of us who didn’t trust them anyway); but also that two in five of us (40 per cent) believe that the police try to cover up wrongdoings by those in the ranks; and that, even more significantly, roughly two thirds of us do not know what we feel about the police – we don’t know whether we trust them; we don’t know if we think they are open and honest or cover up wrongdoings – which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

One more chance?

In any organisation, it takes one wrong’un, and one weak manager, for the culture of a team or a shift to shift unacceptably. From there, one impressionable junior or a manager seeking approval can ensure the temporary shift becomes a permanent switch; it doesn’t take much more for the switch to spread. Police leaders now need to work on a major culture change – shift by shift, team by team not by grandstanding alone, though setting the tone is of course essential. It will take years, perhaps a generation or more, to change its culture and build trust – and I mean build, not rebuild, because, for many of us, it missed its first chance to make a good impression. Unbelievably, there seem to be enough civilians who believe the unbelievable and want to give the police a second chance – for the nth time. For many innocent civilians let down by the police, it is already living on borrowed time.

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Gordon Ramsay’s lost two Michelin Stars – more than one misfortune

As with many awards, it isn’t the winning that is the issue – it is the keeping. To win a Michelin Star is certainly an accolade which brings huge publicity and overwhelms the reservations line, enhancing reputations and bringing business success. To lose a Michelin Star … yes, you’ll face another surge of publicity, unwelcome this time, and, inevitably, a decline in people wanting to book – and a muddied, perhaps ruined, reputation for the (inevitably) high profile chef.

Many of today’s top chefs, wherever in the world they are, use their career progression to demonstrate their competence. Cutting their teeth while cutting tomatoes in a restaurant when it gained its first, second, third Michelin Star (or AA Rosette or any other well-respected culinary award) is indeed worth including in a CV. Saying, “I was head chef (or sous-chef or commis or anyone in the brigade) at Gordon Ramsay at The London NYC, Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant, when it was stripped of its two Michelin Stars” isn’t. Yet it might not have been the head chef’s (or anyone else in the brigade’s) fault. Maintaining a reputation depends on standards being set, taught or explained, monitored, reviewed, renewed and re-iterated – by the person at the top.

This is not a Gordon Ramsay bashing exercise. I’m a fan, obsessively watching his television programmes, marvelling at how he gets away with his antics on and off screen, and will never forget the lunch I had at Claridge’s when he was in charge of its restaurant (and oh how I wish it had been dinner so it could have gone on for longer). But, sadly, he seems to have done it again, doesn’t he – let things slip and not only at his own expense.

Many restaurants with Michelin Stars are, as is the case with The London NYC, in hotels which have their own reputations to manage. If a hotel restaurant is failing (and there are usually many signs), it is as much an issue for the hotel as it is for the restaurateur. Who wasn’t looking – at comments from customers, or tip sizes, or bookings, or local chat, or reviews? And who allowed it to get so bad that the restaurant was stripped not of one of its two stars, but both? To play on Lady Bracknell’s words in The Importance of being Earnest, “To lose one Michelin Star, Mr Ramsay, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”.

In this case, it is a double dose of carelessness. Late in 2009, Gordon Ramsay sold his stake in The London NYC; it had gained two Michelin Stars but hadn’t gone down well with New Yorkers; there were complications with heavily unionised staff; and it was losing money at a frightening pace; he continued to give menu and service advice – and the use of his name.

My advice is always to try to avoid a crisis – there is always something that can be done to reduce risks and it is more than disappointing that business leaders prefer not to spend relatively little on risk management even if they face spending far more on the (sometimes inevitable) crisis that follows. In this case, why did Gordon Ramsay continue to be associated with a restaurant that wasn’t working well? Was he simply dazzled by the Stars?

Leaving aside the issue that Gordon Ramsay and The London NYC failed to see this crisis coming, when a crisis blows what you say can mean the difference between protecting or damaging your reputation – for the long term.

Sitting at my MacBook Pro repeatedly Googling for a comment from Gordon Ramsay and The London NYC in response to being stripped of its Michelin Stars (nothing yet), I found a statement from The London NYC this July commenting on rumours that its two Gordon Ramsay restaurants were to close this September. The statement was given by The London NYC to Grub Street (a New York food news magazine) in July and has re-emerged in today’s UK’s Caterer and Hotelkeeper newsletter:

“We are currently engaged in ongoing negotiations with Local 6 [the hotel, restaurant, club and bartender employees union] regarding the renewal of the Gordon Ramsay Union contract. Hotel management and Union leadership have been working diligently to come to an amicable agreement. As a courtesy to our teams and the Union, we need to allow conversations to continue uninterrupted. It would be premature for us to provide information at this time, however we are confident we will be able to release a detailed update by end of this week or very early next week. We greatly appreciate your interest and look forward to sharing updates with you in an expeditious manner.”

It doesn’t say much, does it – because it can’t. As with almost every statement put out immediately after a crisis has blown, there is nothing much that can be said – because it is not known and speculating is never acceptable. But, you can – and must – say something that demonstrates a concern, a priority, a context, an emphasis, a respect for others caught up in the crisis with you – and that you are taking appropriate action. In reality, this statement – though it was given seemingly reluctantly and a little late – says rather a lot.

Now all that is needed is for both The London NYC and Gordon Ramsay to say something about their massive loss of two Michelin Stars. To minimise the damage to their worldwide reputations, they  must communicate.

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Nigella Lawson’s personal crisis affects her professional reputation

Nigella Lawson’s personal crisis is a stark reminder that businesses of all types – restaurants; food businesses; charities; companies; governments; cookery book writers, television chefs and cooks – can be affected by crises triggered by personal actions or inactions, at work or away from it. We have seen this with Antony Worrall Thompson (a shoplifting drama); Gordon Ramsay (public tiffs and rifts with his father in law, numerous other allegations about his private life); and, away from the kitchen, Chris Huhne ex-MP (and those pesky points that should have been added to his driving license).

The problem with Nigella’s crisis, however, is that she has said and done nothing to demonstrate that she is concerned about her professional reputation, and nothing to demonstrate she is in control of it. A prolific Tweeter for professional reasons, her Twitter stream ended on 15th June – the crisis broke the next day. She abandoned her Facebook comments at the same time. If you usually publicise your every mouthful, or whatever is the equivalent in other businesses, the absence of information can be very vocal.

I’m on record, in this blog and on BBC World Have Your Say, for defending people whose behaviour in a crisis has been found wanting – such as Tony Hayward’s many gaffes during the BP Deepwater Horizon drama – but only as an explanation of their inappropriate behaviour; not as an excuse for it. Nigella has reasons for staying silent and might be hugely uncomfortable with being noisy about what is, to her, her private life. But, with a profile that projects her as a domestic goddess, albeit one with the same normal traits as the rest of we ordinary domestic non-goddesses (sneaking into the fridge at midnight, taking short cuts with recipes, yo-yo weight loss and gain), being caught-out for being caught-up in a rather odd earthly relationship needs explanation.

Crises throw us off our guard. They pose situations alien to our daily lives and make us struggle to know how to cope with them. Adrenaline flows and, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of biology knows, it’s the fight or flight stress hormone. To protect her brand, Nigella should be fighting; instead, she has flown.

In a crisis, it is only possible to fight if you know what to do. Any business – and Nigella is a brand and a brand is a business – needs a crisis management plan – a working, dynamic, looked-at-regularly and regularly-revised protocol detailing what might happen to threaten or damage a reputation and how to deal with it. Thinking the unthinkable, and planning for it, is what those plans must do. Nigella might not have been able to predict that her husband’s volatile and offensive behaviour would play out as it did at a table outside Scott’s, but she did know about his temper and how she normally responds – she’s quoted as saying, “I’ll go quiet when he explodes, and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness”. We saw, from those graphic photos, that she went quiet when he had his hand around her throat, and his thumb up her nose, and presumably she is now in a nest of horrible festeringness. In a crisis, people need to behave appropriately to that crisis; there will be options but staying quiet and festering is seldom the right thing to do.

As a human being caught up in her own domestic, it is understandably hard to know what to do for the best. There is best for oneself in private, and best for one’s reputation. Nigella can afford good advice; she is also at the mercy of well-meaning but potentially bad advice. Turning to friends and family for moral support is essential – but it is inevitably insular. Family and friends cannot be objective about, or fully understand, the impact on a professional reputation. What Nigella doesn’t seem to have is good, professional advice about how to protect her brand. Inevitably caught up in the emotion of it all, it is hard to think on one’s feet, alone, and get it right.

Meanwhile, Charles Saatchi has been thinking on his feet – and using them. Famous for being reclusive, since the incident he’s been out and about extremely publicly. What’s more, he’s equally famous – because Nigella told us so – for not liking “proper food”.  The man who would rather be hidden, and prefers a bowl of cereal than anything Nigella might cook up, has been back to Scott’s – and been happy to be seen going back to Scott’s – where the food is decidedly proper – and seeking out or having delivered, gourmet food. What is he saying? Is it “I like the way you cook really, please come back”? Or “I can live without you, and dine just as well thank you very much”? Or is he simply being seen to be doing normal things – after behaving so utterly abnormally with his wife and in public – to salvage what he can of his reputation? He also took control, to the extent he could, by voluntarily accepting a police caution for assault. He was right to say it was a way of stopping the crisis from hanging over them and it could have been – if it hadn’t been one-sided. It would not have been right to start a tit-for-tat discussion; it would have been right, as possessions move in and out of various houses in London, to quell the speculation with facts. Nigella, as is the case for any business, needs to say something to protect her own and her brand’s reputation – and soon.

And what of Scott’s – inadvertently tied up with Nigella’s crisis? Staying silent was – unusually and exceptionally – the right thing for Scott’s to do.

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How Jimmy Savile caused so many reputation crises

There is much to be written about the many reputations damaged by the revelations of Jimmy Savile’s abusive character and behaviour.

The BBC was slow to respond, wielded the wrong spokesperson (it was a serious enough allegation for the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, not director general George Entwhistle, to have been the first to speak), and took too long to announce an independent enquiry. The police repeatedly hid behind what they considered to be not enough evidence (should they not have co-ordinated the complaints and tried to gather more evidence?). Esther Rantzen demonstrated breathtaking naivety, both in her inaction when rumours emerged years ago and, when the story broke, in making excuses for that inaction (having set up Childline specifically to tackle child abuse, she of all people ought to have had the nouse to know that rumours of child abuse should be explored beyond the cursory). They and leaders at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Broadmoor Hospital, the Duncroft Approved School for Girls in Surrey, Leeds General Hospital, plus many individuals who asked Jimmy Savile about the rumours, all considered his dismissive answers enough. All of them fell victim to Jimmy  Savile’s manipulative persuasiveness but should have known better.

Which gets to the heart of how Jimmy Savile got away with what now appears to be 60 years of child abuse. He had charisma.

It is irrelevant whether that charisma was due to his extremely unusual character, extraordinary flamboyance, exaggerated confidence, limitless high energy or remarkable knack for raising funds for causes that pulled at others’ heart strings. All that matters is that he had it. And that no-one in authority knew how to manage it.

Research shows that when people are in the presence of someone with charisma, their brain deactivates the area of the brain that allows us to be sceptical. We suspend disbelief, become more open to persuasion, are more easily led, fail to challenge. Charisma can be used positively, of course – Nelson Mandela, for example. It is dangerous when it is used negatively – leaders of cults are usually powerfully charismatic. And so was Jimmy Savile. He certainly did fix it – duping those who should not be dupable, so he could continue abusing, decade after decade.

Business leaders need to understand charisma and the compelling power that charismatic people have – and take steps to ensure that people with charisma use it appropriately. They need not only to spot people with charisma but also to train them to use their charisma benevolently. And they need to train others to be aware of the effects of charisma on them, and on others, so no-one falls inappropriately under someone’s spell, causing a reputation crisis.

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Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell get their apologies wrong

The public debates still rage about whether deputy prime minister Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for making a pledge he didn’t keep about tuition fees – and whether chief whip Andrew Mitchell described the police as “plebs” when he was asked to cycle through a side gate, rather than the main gate, at Downing Street.

Let’s leave aside the distractions drummed up by the media – whether Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for not keeping his promise (rather than for making a promise he was not certain he could keep – it’s a subtle distinction) and what exactly Andrew Mitchell has apologised for – and focus on the effects of their apologies.

They used very different tactics. Nick Clegg stood in front of a camera and used a party political broadcast to speak direct to millions. Andrew Mitchell talked on the phone to the policeman he swore at and issued a statement for journalists to pass on to the public. Assuming that both Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell hoped to limit the damage to their reputations, neither apology worked. Why?

It’s easy to see why Andrew Mitchell’s initial apology failed. First, being visible when apologising is almost always essential, even more so if you hold high office. If you can’t be seen while you are communicating, the assumption will be that you have something to hide. Secondly, according to press reports (which, as everyone knows, might not be accurate) his public statement appears to have been not wholly true. Having first said he did not accept that he “used any of the words that have been reported”, he apparently later admitted saying “fucking” though he continues to deny saying “plebs”. His statement this morning – a second failed attempt to close down the story – leaves the issue just as wide open; he said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that have been attributed to me”. On being pressed about whether he swore, he said he was going to go in and get on with his work, pursued by journalists wanting a full answer to a simple question: what did he say?

If you’ve done something wrong, admit it – fast and in full. Holding back information that might emerge later is a short-term quick-fix high-risk strategy. The facts almost always come out – no matter how powerful or above the law you believe you are and especially when, as in this case, others were present or involved in the incident. Getting all the bad news out in one go at the start curtails speculation, clarifies the picture, controls the debate, clears the air and allows you to start working on rebuilding your reputation. A drip, drip, drip approach to communication causes far more damage – the original misdemeanour will be repeated every time new information ekes out, and the voices of your detractors will become louder and more persuasive. No surprise that it generated strong opinions on Twitter – and raked up earlier examples of arrogance and unflattering nicknames.

In Nick Clegg’s case, it was not the judicious-for-him timing or the somewhat naïve wording of his statement that turned his apology into a crisis. It was his facial expressions and forced vocal emphasis; they did not seem genuine. His face often lacks movement so to see his eyebrows lurching up and down at judicious moments and his head tilting as if to emphasise sincerity, appeared unnatural. I wondered if he’d been practising in front of a mirror, acting and speaking in a way he thought would look and sound right, rather than behaving normally. Apologies must be honest and truthful – which includes being true to yourself, not creating a pastiche or caricature. No wonder it spawned a spoof video on YouTube.

Two politicians, two crises, two apologies – both generating strong criticism and long-running debates. Even allowing for the fact that they occurred at sensitive times (for Nick Clegg it was the Liberal Democrat party conference and a need to prevent a leadership challenge – also the perfect springboard, in an ironic twist, for him to urge Andrew Mitchell to come clean); for Andrew Mitchell it was the tragic murder of two women PCs) neither needed to get so out of hand.

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Anthony Worrall Thompson – is his reputation in the soup?

“Poor AWT” seems to be the universal response to the news that restaurateur and celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson was arrested, then cautioned, last Friday for shoplifting. I’m not sure we’d have had an automatically sympathetic reaction to his plight – if he hadn’t responded in the way he did. For the most part, he got the initial stages of his crisis management right.  He:

  • apologised for the misdemeanour and his apology seemed genuine and personal, without resorting to manipulative, emotional heart-string-pulling;
  • recognised that he’s let down his family and friends;
  • said he will seek treatment – the implication being that he wants to stop it happening again;
  • apologised to Tesco;
  • got his statement out – and up on his website – speedily, avoiding speculative stories that might have turned his drama into a full-blown, long-lasting crisis; and
  • said he will try to make amends.

But has it done the trick – or is he in the soup?

It’s too early to say – as is always the case so soon after the emergence of any crisis. Will other retailers come forward and say he shoplifted from them? Will colleagues say he was light-fingered when visiting their restaurants (half-inching cutlery from the table, perhaps)? Will Tesco reveal that the cheese and wine he stole were the most expensive (good taste or greedy cheek) or the cheapest (bad taste or very sad)?

Which raises an interesting point. He has not said whether he has now paid the store for his stolen goods. In most crises involving money (fiddling expenses, fraud) repayment as reparation must be done to rebuild your reputation.

There is another aspect of his statement that misses the mark. He says he will seek the treatment “that is clearly needed”. Any therapist might pick at his wording: wanting to hear him say “that I need”, recognising that he owns the problem and its solution. Crisis management specialists might also nit-pick similarly: taking full responsibility is also a golden rule when dealing with a business crises. It seems, though, that we can forgive him – the majority of people seem to realise that his shoplifting was a symptom of a mental health issue.

So, has he saved his reputation?

Most news reports are factual – short summaries, without comments from others. Good news. BBC Radio 4’s PM programme interviewed a psychiatrist who said it could be driven by mental illness (causing low self-esteem or a need to feel in control). Good news. Twitter listed his name as trending – an exaggeration for 23 Tweets, most simply announcing the story; three or so making lighthearted jokes (Ready Steady Crook, he throws a hell of a wine and cheese party); and a couple linking to a jokey story about AWT setting up a cheese and wine business with Richard Madeley (wrongly accused three years ago of shoplifting champagne in, er, Tesco). Certainly not bad news. A few bloggers were swift to say that he’s a crook who has been treated differently because of his class – but the story didn’t have traction and fizzled out.  Not good news; lucky; it could have fuelled the story.  He has since given a candid interview to The Express which has treated him sympathetically. Good news.

Getting your response right from the start minimises the damage that could be done to your reputation – and that means being well-prepared, or prepared to act very fast indeed, to avoid speculation and unhelpful comments including on social media. If you are not prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve, making the leap from wanting to run and hide to full disclosure can be difficult to do – if you have not planned for a crisis.

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Lie now, pay later – James Murdoch sets his own trap

The news about News International gets worse by the day – so the crisis is nipping along nicely, as we’d all expected, and continues to be wholly outside the control of News International and the Murdochs. It’s the worst possible situation to be in.  And the Murdochs have only themselves to blame.

On Wednesday this week (2nd November) The Independent published new evidence that confirmed what we all suspected. James Murdoch was significantly economical with the truth when he was cross-examined by members of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee in July. He had indeed been warned about phone hacking at the News of the World and its implications but, instead of taking the only course that works – admitting it, apologising for not acting earlier, pledging not to let it happen again, and keeping his promise – he fell back on what he, I suspect, thought was a clever dodge that would let him off the hook: a selective loss of memory. He claimed he did “not recall” being briefed. He is not the first person caught in a crisis who has tried this tactic as an excuse for not taking responsibility. And he is not the first person to find it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because it shows two things: that you can’t be trusted (which will inevitably imply that the business can’t be trusted) and that you are not up to the job (powers of recall are essential in business, particularly if you have been told that something is “fatal to our case” and that the business’s position is “very perilous”). More importantly, it simply is not convincing. It is a euphemism for lying.

As every crisis management expert will tell you, lies – blatant lies or lies dressed up as artful dodges – will always come back to haunt you. Someone somewhere will be digging away trying to expose the truth and it will be found.

Lying is a desperate measure. People lie in everyday life – usually without thinking through the consequences – to get themselves out of sticky situations (and find it doesn’t work). In a crisis there is no room for acting without thinking through the consequences. You need to be considered, dispassionate, objective, thoughtful – and take a long view. That view is what is best for the business’s reputation for the long term – what you must do to minimise damage to it and allow you to rebuild it. There will be costs along the way (though, if you follow the rules, they ought not to be at the catastrophic level faced by News International) and you must pay them as they arise. There is no scope for a hire purchase approach when protecting a reputation. Buy now, pay later might be appropriate if you need a sofa but in a crisis, as James Murdoch has found out, it’s lie now – and you will pay later.

It will be fascinating to see if he comes clean – or continues to dodge – when he appears in front of the select committee next Thursday.

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