Archive for Getting it right

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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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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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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Apple and Steve Jobs get it right – again

Every business – yes, every business of whatever size – should have a crisis management plan. Part of that plan should be what happens if the boss (or the business innovator or, indeed, the holder of any post on which the future of the business depends) becomes ill or dies.  Death in service is not an issue to be considered only from an employee’s pension policy point of view. Nor is it just about keeping the organisation running for the short term – keeping the lights on, the door open, the phones working, the computers running, the orders coming in and the products and services flowing out – while a successor is found.

When an employee, in whatever role, has a massive impact on the success of the business, having a succession plan is essential. Who will lead the organisation through the turbulence and beyond – keeping staff committed, customers confident, suppliers confirming orders? Who, in the case of a business that is a market leader known for its groundbreaking products, will be responsible for driving innovation?

Mitigating for those extreme circumstances takes courage. Talking about someone’s death, particularly in their presence and when the risk looms, is a tough task. But it must not be shirked out of sensitivity or fear.

In the case of Apple and Steve Jobs, who died last Wednesday (5th October), the succession planning task was exceptionally difficult. Someone so focussed, so committed, so fixed on a business is very hard to replace. Steve Jobs was a one-off. There will, of course, be other one-offs – but their one-offness will be different and it might take years to find him or her. Another option, then, is to innovate ahead. That is why Steve Jobs left four years’ of new products waiting to be developed and launched. Apple was his life – so much so that he sanctioned an official biography so his children could know him and understand why he worked so intensely. It was natural for him to want to ensure Apple’s future.

Looking ahead – in so many dimensions – was what Steve Jobs did all the time. He clearly wanted to buy time for Apple by leaving it able to continue rolling out new products during the succession gap, to ensure its future for as long as he could. Replacing him will not be easy.

In the right tone

There is another smaller (for Apple) but fundamental (for many businesses) aspect that Apple got right. Businesses which face events that have an impact on others’ lives (such as deaths), or their own success, should be prepared for an instant change to their website. Airlines are well ahead of most businesses – with ready-to-launch dark sites to replace their usual websites. After all, if a plane crash results in multiple deaths, it is not appropriate for the home page to advertise holidays or display photos of people laughing with joy as they run through sunkissed surf.

What that dark site should contain depends on the business. In Apple’s case after Steve Jobs’ death, there were several options. What it has chosen could not be more effective or more appropriate. In Apple’s typical sleek, clear, sharply-focussed trademark way its home page is a simple tribute: a photograph of Steve Jobs, his name and his life span. There is no need for a detailed obituary. This home page says it all.

Apple tribute to Steve Jobs - no words needed

Apple has, yet again, shown exemplary crisis management planning and response. All businesses should take note.

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Crisis management and the importance of consultation

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo)’s knee-jerk objection to the news that the prime minister has invited a US expert to give advice on tackling gang culture raises an important aspect of good crisis management – the need to consult specialists.

The police force and its leaders are, inevitably, feeling sensitive and demoralised. They have had to cope with two significant resignations over phone hacking at the News of the World; the pressure of responding to the recent riots; the IPCC’s initial findings during its review of their actions in relation to the death of Mark Duggan (which led to the riots); and being attacked verbally, physically and reputationally. No wonder they feel vulnerable.

But this is no time to let your emotions get the better of you, personally or corporately. Like any organisation in good times, the police force is not perfect. There is scope for improvement and retreating into a bunker of self-protection is not good enough. Like any organisation in crisis, it has a choice: fight or flight. Objecting to gaining information from another country’s experience is the equivalent of flight.

As for Sir Hugh Orde’s criticism that seeking advice from US police expert Bill Bratton can be discredited because the US still has 400 gangs, this not only sounds desperately defensive; it also illustrates the danger of playing the numbers game. What is the proportion of US gangs in relation to its size, compared with the number of gangs here in relation to our size?  And how do you count the number of gangs anyway – when they seem to merge, disband or reform in a somewhat fluid way depending on the charisma of their leaders, the opportunities, the reasons, the motives, the mood, the triggers. The US is bound to have more gangs than us but it doesn’t necessarily show that the US police is ineffective; it could just as easily show how much more experience the US police has of tackling gang culture.

In short, the police force should have invited advice from others in similar situations – not left it to the government to take action. It should now welcome that move.

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, it is very easy for any organisation, business or individual to retreat from potential criticism, to hide from the spotlight and to look inwards for ideas and direction. Discussion must take place internally (about what went right, what went wrong and what could have been done better – against your crisis management plan and the options you considered as the crisis unfolded) but if you only consult internally, you will only gain a narrow, limited – and potentially over-cautious, self-interested, self-supporting and self-serving – perspective. You need to look broadly and consider numerous options – for urgent or immediate actions, for ways of minimising and mitigating risks, and for devising a longer-term strategy. You must look at it in relation to others’ crises – as experienced by those others.

Let’s remember that the benchmark-setting Chilean government consulted NASA not on how to get the miners out of a tight spot – but how to help them survive for a long time in one. NASA, which has been dealing with that challenge since the late 1950s, was bound to have some valuable insights and experiences. Consulting it was both inspired and expedient. Consulting Bratton is more obvious than inspired – but just as expedient.

A word of warning: it is just as important not to over-consult. It is tempting to ask everyone for a view but, in the early phase of a crisis, you need to make good decisions fast. Consult a small core group – those essential to running the crisis and protecting the organisation’s reputation plus involved specialists. Leave wider consultation, particularly internally, till later. Yes, someone must listen to the ground to gauge opinion – and report on it – but during the initial phase of a crisis leaders must assume a command and control approach. As the organisation moves into recovery – and reviewing its crisis plan – consulting more widely makes sense. At that point, if not earlier, it never makes sense to turn down the chance to benefit from others’ experiences and hindsight.

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When is resignation right for crisis management?

Rebekah Brooks took far too long to realise that the only option left open to her to protect her reputation (such as it now is) and, more importantly, News International’s reputation (such as it now is) was for her to resign. She might have had “total” support from Rupert Murdoch six days ago but there was little evidence of support outside the murky Murdoch world and it is always the outside view that counts for more.

It was not only crisis management experts who were aghast at her brazen attitude by clinging on, not to mention their brazen attitude by holding a surreal walkabout in an attempt to show that they were all in this together. We knew they were all in this together – up to their necks in it together – but it was not the togetherness that mattered. It was the subject – and the public was aghast at their arrogant attempts at toughing it out.

When crisis management gets to the point where you think the right thing to do is to tough it out – it’s not. It’s time to bow out – because you have made the wrong thing (you) the focus. If the crisis affects the business, it is the business’s reputation, not yours, that matters.

So, when should Rebekah Brooks have resigned?

She was not editor of the News of the World when, in 2005, Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, and Glenn Mulcaire, private investigator, were arrested for illegally phone hacking Prince William’s phone. Nor was she editor of the News of the World when, in 2007, Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed. She was editor of The Sun. She was promoted to chief executive of News International on 1st Sepember 2009 at which point she became responsible, overall, for all the newspapers in the News International group. Phone hacking must have been on her agenda as a topic of concern; she should immediately have ordered, and announced, a clean sweep through all News International’s policies and set new standards.

When, in February 2010, the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee said it thought it inconceivable that no-one other than Clive Goodman knew about phone hacking at the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks should have announced that she had taken action to find out what exactly was going on and act on her findings. You can’t be at the top and ignore what is going on – even if the allegations apply to a time when you were not associated with the News of the World. It is now, and the future, that matter.

New allegations emerged in September 2010; Scotland Yard reopened its inquiry and the story began to snowball. The spotlight fell on Andy Coulson more than on Rebekah Brooks – but what was she up to, as chief executive? Instigating changes? Apologising? Or just hanging on?

In April 2011 News International apologised to some of those whose phones were hacked – and set aside a £15m fund for compensation claims. Resigning now, allowing a new chief executive to clear things up, would have meant a short, sharp burst of publicity followed by recovery. But she hung on.

On 4th July, The Guardian alleged that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone when Rebekah Brooks was editor of the News of the World. And what was her reaction? To shift blame by saying that she was on holiday. Astonishing. It did not wash. If you are in charge, you take responsibility whether you are working at your desk or paddling in the sea. It is your policy and your approach which are being followed – wherever you are. And if it is going on behind your back, all the public can conclude is that you are a weak and ineffective leader. You must go.

Arguing that you need to stay to oversee the clean up operation – otherwise known as doing a Willie Walsh – is short-term desperation that has nothing to do with saving the business; it is about saving you. Rebekah Brooks’ stance was indefensible as chief executive; it did even more damage to her own reputation, News of the World’s reputation, and News International’s reputation. It was clear that she was not up to the job. But still she hung on.

Hanging on is almost always a sign of ego getting in the way of business sense. If you want to limit the damage of a crisis, the time to resign is the minute it begins to affect the reputation of the business (or your own, if it is a personal crisis). Hanging on only prolongs the agony by highlighting wrongdoings (more claims, more criticism from public figures including prime minister David Cameron, the FBI, a major shareholder); increasing risks to other aspects of the business (BSkyB, ownership of other News International titles, US titles, other titles around the world); and sends costs spiralling – and not just the cost of flying in from afar, time spent at meetings and advertisements to say sorry and we won’t do it again, it is the costs-to-come of repairing a now much more seriously damaged reputation: Rebekah Brooks’ reputation, News International’s reputation, News Corp’s reputation, Rupert Murdoch’s reputation, James Murdoch’s reputation and, inevitably, the reputation of the entire British press.

Ironically, we might end up thanking Rebekah Brooks for hanging on while doing nothing at News International and inadvertently tackling tabloid tactics.

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News International’s reputation crisis – numerous lessons in what not to do

News International’s fascinating reputation crisis has highlighted so many issues about crisis management it is hard to know which to focus on in a blog giving tips. Meanwhile, the story keeps developing faster than I can keep up – which is typical of crises that are mismanaged. And that is lesson one:

Take control from the start. News International lost the chance to be in control – by not taking it from the start and that’s the first crucial and critical aspect of good crisis management, when a crisis blows. You can only do that if you anticipate the worst and mitigate against it. From News International’s point of view, the worst must be what is happening now – a problem with one publication in its stable has ended up shaking the worldwide reputation of the whole of News Corp. News International has been dodging the worst since the issue of phone hacking first arose. It hoped a couple of seemingly dramatic steps (Clive Goodman’s arrest and imprisonment; Glenn Mulcaire’s arrest and imprisonment) would convince us that it had got rid of the causes of their misdeeds. The problem is that the public suspected that they were acting on higher orders; someone sanctioned their behaviour, and that someone is still somewhere in News Corp. And that leads to lesson two:

Token gestures do not work. The sacking of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? The announcement of an internal inquiry didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? Rebekah Brooks, it has just been announced, is now not going to lead that internal enquiry – and didn’t we know all along that she shouldn’t? Closing the News of the World ends its 168-year history – but aren’t we all questioning the integrity of all Murdoch titles, indeed all Murdoch media businesses? And that leads to lesson three:

Take swift, decisive action. If the sackings of the wrongdoers had been followed by significant shifts in policy which were then put into action, this crisis might have been avoided. It looks, though, as if the corruption was so endemic that it was impossible to stop it without closing the title. If that had been done then, when the issues first arose, the damage to News International would have been much less. Yes, there would have been a media frenzy. Yes, politicians would have spoken out. But some voices would have been supportive – and the impact much less as a result. And that leads to lesson four:

Consider those you might affect: A crisis in any organisation or business will have an impact on others. Some will be friends and some foes; your aim must be to win public support from friends and to keep foes quiet. Well, didn’t the News of the World do well. It’s hard to find any friends who have not turned into foes and those who have spoken out have had an enormous impact including big brand advertisers, charity partners and shareholders; we have yet to see what effect it has had on its readers. But it has had a much wider impact on organisations that were already in a weak position: threatening the future of the Press Complaints Commission (long due a wholesale overhaul); dragging the integrity of the Metropolitan Police into the open, yet again (long due a wholesale overhaul); raising serious questions about political friendships and contributions (long due a wholesale overhaul). It has thrown doubt on the prime minister’s judgement (not just about appointing Andy Coulson but also about forging links with editors). It will undoubtedly raise questions about other tabloids and whether they always tell the truth (we know they don’t). It is not inconceivable that others of its newspapers – wherever they are published – could be at risk. We know that it has affected News Corp’s bid for BSkyB. It will affect the public’s view of James Murdoch (who has stepped in to try to shift the image of the crisis but been unconvincing). And it will make people question the business ethics of Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, her husband Matthew Freud and his business Freud Communications (whose approach to crisis management has not always been the best). Which leads to lesson five:

Be wary of forging alliances: Having the support of big names – celebrities, brands, decision-makers – is inevitable; it adds credibility and draws attention. But it has a flip side; it’s the reverse of considering those you might affect: it’s about how your allies might affect your reputation if they do something wrong or inappropriate. That’s why Ford, the Royal British Legion and others have withdrawn their support; they cannot afford to be dragged down by News International’s dodgy reputation. And that leads to lesson six:

It takes years to build a reputation – and a second to destroy it. Of course, you could argue that the News of the World’s 168 year reputation was always as a distributor of sleaze – but millions read it (including, for several years many years ago, me) and millions loved it (including, for several years many years ago, me). It punctured puffery – but it failed when it failed to puncture its own. And that leads to lesson seven:

Don’t get too big for your boots. We see it over and over again. Success, or being surrounded by yes-men or being courted by the great and the good, makes people feel invincible. Peter Mandelson, Gordon Ramsay, Tony Hayward, Hosni Mubarak, Fergie, the Pope, HMRC, British Airways, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks … they all faced crises because they behaved as if they were above it all. And that leads to lesson eight:

It’s all about trust. For decades, dinner party chat has been about Murdoch, his approach and his publications – and not in a good way. The public does not trust Rupert Murdoch. We see politicians toadying up to him and his editors, and we don’t like it. We see a man consumed and convinced by his own self-importance, and we don’t like it. We see a business empire getting ever larger, with fewer controls from outside, and we don’t like it. We see him protecting editors and others even when there is evidence that they were implicated, and we don’t like it. Because, just as we all believe in the freedom of the press and their role to tell us what others are trying to hide, we don’t like having the wool pulled over our eyes by people whose role it is to expose the truth, but who lie themselves. We knew there was worse to come and that it extended well beyond the News of the World; we had little trust. Which leads to lesson nine:

Face the music. The most striking image of all throughout this saga was the one of Rupert Murdoch – a media man who knows the rules – when he said “no comment” – the biggest sin in media management – when door-stepped by journalists. When you say nothing, the only inference people will make is that you have something to hide. We all know that there must be more to come. Much more. We’ve had fudge, denial, pretence, lies. We’ve even had Rebekah Brooks claiming to be on holiday every time a problem arose (as if that means she is not ultimately responsible). They have not worked. They never work. They do not build trust. They will always be exposed. Which leads to lesson 10 which is, in reality and always, lesson one:

Be honest, open and transparent: It’s the only mitigation factor that works – and it works every time.

The question is: will we ever get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from News International?

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When personal crises impact on business

Four crises running in the news demonstrate the conflicts that can arise when the trigger is personal but the impact is on the business. Steve Jobs is taking a back seat at Apple because of his ill-health; Alan Johnson has resigned as shadow chancellor of the exchequer for personal reasons; Andy Coulson has at last resigned as the prime minister’s chief spokesperson; and David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died last year, has become embroiled in a local case of a mother who needs more help to look after her profoundly disabled child. Each of these raises different issues – and has different impacts – but the crisis is the same; it’s personal.

Can Apple remain rosy?

Any business that relies heavily on its chief executive, or any one individual, for its reputation is in a extremely dangerous position. As its business innovator, and charismatic spokesperson, Steve Jobs is inextricably tied to the Apple logo just as Richard Branson is synonymous with Virgin. When Jobs or Branson become the story, their brand and its reputation are bound to be implicated – for better or worse.

In the case of Jobs, with long-standing serious health problems, Apple has been lucky that the effect of his absences has been small and relatively short-lived dips in it share price. But what might happen if he can’t come back to the job? While Apple has said that its product line is secure for the next two to three years, what will happen after that? Will it cease to be as innovative – simply churning out the same products while others make advances?  Will it lose cachet – with Apple products no longer the must-haves people queue for even in countries not used to queueing? Will it become just another technology company, no longer ahead of the pack?

Every business needs to have an exit strategy. For small businesses, that might be to build a business that is strong enough to sell when the owner wants to retire and at a price that protects, or enhances, the owner’s lifestyle. For serial entrepreneurs, it might be to create a business ripe for takeover after a few years, leaving its owner free and well-funded enough to start up another venture to sell. For Apple, the need is for shareholders to continue to provide the cash it needs to innovate and grow so it can at least retain its market share – and for fans like me to continue to want to buy its new products. To do this it must have plans for how Steve Jobs will be replaced whenever he leaves, and it could be sooner than anyone wants.

The issue, for the moment, is whether Apple should have said what those plans are – to reassure investors. The rule book says yes – and I would counsel any business to follow best practice. But Apple has never played by the rules and, for the most part, investors and fans indulge it in its above-it-all approach. It is taking a gamble – but, provided it has a big announcement up its sleeve for when Steve Jobs disappears for good, saying nothing now could well pay off. Just don’t risk it yourself – unless your business is an international phenomenon in a class of its own.

Alan Johnson leaves in mist

Fortunately for Alan Johnson, the story of his resignation very quickly became the story of a potential clash, or rivalry, between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. But, between his leaving and the political hacks rising, there was a gap long enough for the media to want to fill it.

By not explaining the reason for his resignation, Johnson has given the story longer legs. In the absence of authoritative information from him when he resigned, the media has dug around and found plenty to fill its empty pages (apparently an affair between his wife and his protection officer). And the pages might not read as Mr Johnson wishes.

He will, at some point, have to make a statement – whether to correct, clarify or confirm the speculation. He should have taken control of the story and told it like it is, getting it over and done with at the point of his resignation (not unreasonably, simultaneously asking the press to respect his and his wife’s privacy while they sort things out). Instead he is now on the back foot (and very lucky that Balls and Miliband are providing a distraction).

Andy Coulson exits under a cloud

“… when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on.” At last, some common sense from the supposedly media savvy Andy Coulson who has been under attack almost from the start of his sojourn at 10 Downing Street. Whether he did know about phone-hacking at the News of the World when he was its editor is not for me to say – though if he didn’t know, surely he wasn’t on the pulse of what was going on at his own paper. And, if he did know …

Regardless, this issue is about when to resign if you are under personal attack: almost always, it should be immediately and without equivocation – because it is almost impossible to carry on as normal with the media sniffing away, determined to uncover something. If it turns out you did nothing wrong, you can go back with your head held high and new respect from others. But while there is any doubt in the public’s mind – and especially if the media is gunning for you – going fast is the thing to do.

It is perfectly honourable to say something like “I have done nothing wrong but, while there is an investigation, I cannot give my full attention to the job so I am stepping down for the time being”. The truthful will be reinstated with added value; the untruthful will get what they deserve. The real sin is to hang on like grim … Andy Coulson.

David Cameron accused of being too close to the subject

Today’s PR Week carries a story, driven by a former colleague of mine, about David Cameron’s fitness to see an issue objectively. Cameron has been accused of being too close to a subject and getting it wrong.

During the general election campaign he met Riven Vincent, mother of a severely disabled child, after an exchange on Mumsnet. Very recently, Vincent posted a comment on Mumsnet saying that she was thinking of putting her daughter into care as she was finding it so hard to cope with so little respite care. The brouhaha that followed centred on the government’s cuts – though there has been no reduction in the level of support Vincent has received and nor is there any threat of a reduction. Cameron has written to Vincent. My former colleague thinks he should have resisted.

Cameron’s damned if he does and damned if doesn’t. On balance, he did the right thing – he’s spoken often about his personal experiences with his son Ivan and will always be associated with issues affecting families with profoundly disabled children. If he had said nothing he’d have been accused of callousness; criticism of his policies would have escalated and he’d have lost personal credibility. More importantly, he would not have been true to himself if he had failed to respond this time – and would have been wide open to personal and professional criticism.

Being authentic is essential – though I realise not everyone in the communications industry follows this golden rule.  Yes, Cameron needs to work out a way of dealing with similar cases so he can manage the situation if it arises again which it is bound to do given that it is so emotive, but he is undeniably personally associated with the issue and cannot duck it for political expediency.

Silence is never acceptable in a crisis. It implies there is something to hide – and that implication can only damage a reputation. Unless you are Apple.

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The Met Police – is what they say what they mean?

The response from the Metropolitan police to the anti-Conservative Party student riots in London yesterday raises some interesting issues.

The commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, made a statement on television last night  in which he apologised for the Met’s inadequate response to the rioters, pledged to find out what went wrong and promised to do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen again. His tone, demeanour and words were exactly right. Top marks.

Today not only has the government criticised the Met for its failure to expect the unexpected but the Met has also let itself down. Its website does not include the commissioner’s comments.

Instead, it carries a short, sharp, shock of a statement more or less absolving itself of responsibility because they had been given duff gen. It was going to be peaceful, they had been told by the organisers, so they took a minimalist approach. [http://ow.ly/38qZ4]  They have also added an even shorter statement about the 50 arrests made as a result. [http://ow.ly/38rKP]

And that’s it.

So, is it conciliatory or bullish? Has it apologised or passed the buck? Is it only interested in arrests and self-serving back-covering – or in improving its service?

During a crisis, press officers will be under huge pressure. The volume of calls will be overwhelming; time will slip through fingers. Everyone will run on empty – or biscuits that result in short bursts of energy (which might make them feel invincible) followed by long slumps of exhaustion (when the easiest task will be too much hard work).

But someone, whether wired or tired, needs to be responsible for keeping up the flow of information and for ensuring it reflects the business’s position.

When a chief exec speaks direct to camera or on radio, rather than on paper with words in quotation marks, producing a transcript or putting the video or recording on the website is an essential task. Otherwise its absence will speak louder than words.

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