Archive for September, 2010

Gordon Ramsay’s reputation hit again

Poor old Gordon Ramsay. One of the chefs who featured in Kitchen Nightmares USA, Joe Cerniglia, has apparently committed suicide in New York. This is ghastly news in itself. Inevitably, it has given the media (which has it in for him at the best of times) the chance to remind us that Joe’s suicide is not the first to be linked to Gordon Ramsay. In 2007 Rachel Brown, who featured in Hell’s Kitchen 2006, killed herself in Dallas.

Gordon issued a statement immediately after Joe’s death was announced – as, indeed, he should have done. But getting the communications right immediately after a crisis is only the start. Being linked, however tangentially, with the suicide of one person, never mind two, has massive implications for the formats of his shows, the selection of participants, agreements with those participants – and his behaviour during those shows.

It also has implications for his business. With public opinion widely divided (it’s love him or loathe him, with the loathers being most vocal) how many more people will decide not to eat in his restaurants, stay in his hotels, buy his books, take part in his shows – or watch them? Will his detractors criticise him even more – and what will that do to his already tarnished reputation?

Gordon was lucky that, in America at least, a clinical psychologist said (on CBS news, broadcast throughout the USA) that, while the suicides of Joe and Rachel might have been triggered by the show, they were more likely to have been driven by underlying “major problems”. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

Gordon must now prepare not just for further criticism from this latest crisis but also for other potential crises involving individuals, his shows, his books, restaurants, hotels … his overall business. Crisis management is all about reputation management. And the bigger your reputation (Gordon’s is international) and your personality (Gordon’s is far from small) the bigger the task. When your reputation is driven by your personality, it’s almost always going to be one step forward and two steps back. Which means spending a lot more time behind the scenes, prepping. Poor Gordon.

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Being sorry is never enough

The real tragedy of this crisis is that it’s a repeat. The Pope’s in town and he’s just given what even the media has described as a profound apology – for the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church.

“I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes,” he said, adding: “I also acknowledge the shame and humiliation that all of us have felt”.

“It’s his most profound apology in public; he’s truly contrite,” was how one of his stooges put it. “Profound and touching,” said a media commentator.

But it’s not enough.

As I said in my blog in April, while an apology is essential, it must be accompanied by a pledge to do something to right the wrong and that pledge must then be fulfilled. If your crisis also drags up other concerns – in this case, the Catholic church’s struggle with homosexuality, gay rights, safe sex, contraception and abortion – even a profound apology sounds circumspect rather than genuine.

When you’ve said the same thing before – as did the Pope in April, though not in such profound terms – it’s not even circumspect. It’s hollow.

The Catholic church may well need to reiterate its apology many more times for many years to come but it also has to commit itself to decisive action, not just repeated words, if it is to overcome its heavily tarnished reputation.

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Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

Why is it that some people find it so hard to say sorry? There are three issues raging away as I write this: the Pope’s visit to England; the trapped Chilean miners; and the computer cock up over at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). All of them involve, to some degree, the all too frequent failure of people or organisations to say sorry. I’ll deal with the first two in separate posts. This is about the English tax man giving us another reason to treat him as a hate figure.

It was, in fact, all the computer’s fault. The massively expensive computer system that calculates our tax liabilities – and which everyone but the ministers and civil servants who run the computer contract believed would go wrong – did go wrong. Lots of people have not paid enough tax. Quite a lot of people paid too much. HMRC announced the fact, and details of how it would rectify the problem, without expressing any sympathy for the people who will have to stump up their unexpected shortfalls.

In the middle of a deep recession, and with the government emphasising at every opportunity that we have to be prepared for deep cuts, the common sense response from the vast majority of tax payers was a metaphorical shrug. They saw a structural problem (a useless computer system) was the cause, realised that if they’d been on the winning side they’d have wanted their refunds so, from the losing side, understood they’d have to do their bit. At least HMRC would take the money in stages, easing the pain.

But a simple “sorry” was missing. And that gave the media a chance to whip up a story of outrage.

This is how it goes – time after time after time. If you make a mistake, not saying sorry gives your opponents a chance to niggle away having spotted a weakness. Your reputation comes under attack and, guess what … you end up saying sorry – for even more mistakes. Just as HMRC did this week:

“I know how to apologise, I’ve had to do it before. I did not do it then and I am sorry for that,” said Dave Hartnett, head of HMRC. Well, it’s a sort of apology, in a roundabout way, and hardly the fulsome, hands-up surrender we all wanted.

If you want to emerge from a crisis with your reputation enhanced, rather than in tatters, say sorry – and say it at the start. As I said in an earlier post, an apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt. Saying “sorry it happened” is not the same as saying “sorry, I did it”. In the case of HMRC, it was guilty – and still it didn’t say sorry. And we now hate the tax man even more.

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