Archive for Top tips

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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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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News International revelations confirm that confidentiality is not a form of crisis management

We’ve been waiting for more “devastating new evidence” in the News of the World, News International and News Corp phone-hacking scandal and today some of it came. It emphasises three points that every reputation management or crisis management specialist knows and advises: confidentiality agreements do not guarantee confidentiality; the truth will always emerge; and you should come clean with your advisers (reputation managers, press office, lawyers) at the start – giving limited information or setting a narrow remit means you won’t get the advice you need.

Written evidence, to the House of Commons select committee that is investigating the phone-hacking scandal, includes a letter from Clive Goodman, the News of the World royal reporter who was jailed for phone-hacking. Previous evidence has attempted to show that he was a rogue reporter; phone-hacking was not widespread; the editors (Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, Colin Myler) did not know about it. Now his letters reveal that phone-hacking was widespread – and that it was discussed in the paper’s daily editorial conferences. Seeking to defend their reputation, the paper’s lawyers Harbottle & Lewis, have said they were not fully briefed and only advised on a very narrow aspect. That’s a triple-whammy of crisis management misdeeds.

Meanwhile, we all had our suspicions; we’ve all been waiting to be proved right; there was a conspiracy of silence – and we now have evidence of it.

If you believe you need to rely on a confidentiality agreement to protect your reputation, you are on dangerous, shifting sand. There is no such thing as confidentiality if others, or you, later have to defend your actions to preserve, or limit damage to, your reputation.

Similarly, if you have to redact (the current vernacular for block) information in evidence you can be sure that all you are doing is drawing attention to the fact that you are hiding something. Someone will dig deep to find out what you are keeping secret and why – and tell of their findings.

Seeking confidentiality is a desperate measure. Being open, honest and transparent is the only way to limit the damage to your reputation that your secrecy might cause.

When the game is up, and you are at risk of your attempted cover-up being exposed, it is time to wave a white flag – confess, reveal all, apologise, promise not to make the same mistake, and take actions to ensure you don’t.

We are still waiting for the Murdochs, Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and Colin Myler to see common sense. And I can’t be the only one waiting for more devastating revelations …

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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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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. []  They have also added an even shorter statement about the 50 arrests made as a result. []

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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An apology is not an admission of guilt

When does poor customer service turn into a crisis?

I had wanted to eat in a near-local tapas bar for years. But, in the way that we eat out these days – round the corner or miles away – it was just that little bit far from on my doorstep but not distant enough to make a special journey. Going with a friend, I’ll call her Sarah, gave me the impetus I needed –  her flat is half way there so the extra journey was a shortish walk.

It was all going swimmingly. The menu was everything we hoped for; the prices were keen; Sarah didn’t want to drink much wine so, with half bottles on the menu, I could add a glass of chilled Manzanilla without feeling profligate. Ordering was a bit of a struggle as the non-English speaking (and non-Spanish speaking) waitress couldn’t answer questions – but she was charming and cheerful which added a bit of balance. And the atmosphere and decor couldn’t help but lift our spirits.

And then disaster struck. Twisted into a succulent piece of squid in its own ink was a long, dark hair. It wasn’t in my mouth but in Sarah’s. She struggled to pull it out, so entwined it was amidst the squid, and, naturally, was not keen to eat any more of it. She wondered whether to leave it or say something; I felt we should raise it – if only as neither of us now wanted to eat the rest of the squid and we’d both chosen it enthusiastically.

The waitress was confused about what to do so we nudged her into saying she’d ask the chef.  A chef duly came upstairs. You’d imagine he’d apologise, wouldn’t you. But no. His first comment was to say, robustly, that he couldn’t see how it could have happened as everyone in the kitchen has short hair and wears hats. Wrong answer. Wrong approach. Immediately, a simple customer service mistake risked becoming a crisis. Why? Because in a part of London where local gossip travels fast – several community websites bristle with bitterness – we could have posted a negative review which could have triggered others’ gripes and groans … one small local restaurant could lose a large number of local supporters: its core customers.

As a passionate-about-local-independent-restaurants-foodie I was determined not to cause trouble so suggested that, although I could see that the kitchen was vigilant (his hair was short, he was wearing a hat), perhaps the fault arose at the fishmonger or at any point along the supply chain. The chef remained implacable but, when he realised we were resolute, offered a free tapa and a new bowlful, much more generously filled, appeared.

Many people involved in managing a crisis confuse apologising with admitting liability. They are not the same. Where there is a fault, an accident or a failing, and whether the cause is a mystery or clear, a simple “I’m sorry it has happened” is what is needed. Until facts are known – and never speculate about them – no one needs to say “we did it, we are to blame, it’s our fault” or anything like that. But you should be sorry about it happening. Denying its possibility, when it has happened, makes you look churlish, at best, and devious and dodgy – or worse – at worst.

People tend to take apologies for granted, when they are granted. If what you are looking for, by apologising, is plaudits that boost your own ego you will be disappointed. It’s the other side of the coin you should worry about – being cavalier or insensitive, as that could destroy your reputation.

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What, take a tip from a politician?

I know politicians are criticised for not answering the question and that, by suggesting you take a tip from one, I might have lost your attention already. But, in a crisis, not answering can be your best tactic. That doesn’t mean staying silent (that’s the worst plan of inaction). You need to put your points across and the trick is to find a way of making it happen, seamlessly.

Ignore the subject, and disregard the person speaking; take this for what it is: a nifty way of turning round the conversation. It’s David Cameron being pressed by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on his relationship with the non-domiciled Lord Ashcroft, as reported in The Independent this morning:

“I can’t remember when I first met Michael Ashcroft, but let’s put it in perspective a little bit. I’ve totally changed the way the Conservative Party raises money. We have broadened the supply … It’s not reliant on just a few millionaires any more.”

Just nine words (10 if you count let’s as two) and he’s changed the angle of the story. It’s worth taking a tip from this pro, whatever your political colour.

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