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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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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No plain sailing for BP

It is astonishing, isn’t it – that Tony Hayward should keep on being so extraordinarily gaffe-prone.

While I was taking part in the BBC World Service “World, Have Your Say” programme last Thursday, I suspected that he was receiving bad advice and following it, rather than being given good advice and not following it. Now I’m not so sure. If his advisers said it would be fine for him to spend a day publicising that he has a yacht (and quite a big yacht), they really are not up to the job. But not recognising they were giving him duff advice shows that Tony Hayward really does have bad judgement.

It is absolutely the case that you need a break when in the midst of a crisis. Clearing your head for a day makes for better decision-making the next – and a complete contrast is a very good thing. So is some exhilarating physical exercise, particularly if it gets the wind through your hair and takes you out of yourself, as well as the situation, for a bit. But, if your only wind-down sport is yachting, it’s the wrong image to portray even if you spend more time watching from the shore than on board.

I can’t at this moment think of any crisis where being associated with yachting will do anything other than harm. Its reputation is as a sport for the rich – conjuring up images of champagne, frivolity and designer shopping regardless of the length of your boat and the size of your crew. OK so he only went to the Isle of Wight but the relative lack of glamour there makes little difference (though if he had swooshed over to  Monte Carlo it would have been even worse). It still smacks of couldn’t care-lessness.

On the eve of Wimbledon, he should have steered clear of the sea and had a vigorous game of tennis.

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BP just can’t help itself – the world agrees

Once you are on a downward spiral it’s impossible to turn round and go up. At least that’s how it is for poor, beleaguered BP.

Not only is its CEO, Tony Hayward, gaffe prone; so is its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg. Self-deprecating humour that isn’t understood in the US, is one thing. To refer to people affected by the oil gushing into the Gulf as “small people” is another. Of course we know what C-HS was trying to say: he meant ordinary citizens. It just didn’t come out right. But, with memories that go jogging back to Imelda Marcos calling her subjects “little people”, C-HS’s comment was more than an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

Meanwhile, blowing my own trumpet a bit, I got a call out of the blue on Wednesday – from the BBC World Service “World, Have Your Say” programme. They had seen this blog and read that I felt sorry for Tony Hayward. Would I be prepared to go on Thursday’s programme and talk for about 20 minutes? No! was my instant response. And that was no way to manage my own mini-crisis. Fortunately (for me) they persuaded me (a little flattery helped, I’m sad to admit) and suddenly I had to put into practice everything I preach. Starting with preparation, preparation, preparation.

I have a persuasive anecdote which I use in crisis media management training courses so I’ll save that for then. This example isn’t second hand.

You can’t do enough. Prepping takes hours. I’d been up late thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to come across and was nowhere like ready. I spent the morning, thanks to a client changing our plans, honing points and fine-tuning back-up info to illustrate points. Thankfully, a colleague offered to cancel a meeting and, goodness, I needed that extra time. I chanted bits out loud, trying to set them in stone (or at least in grey matter). I typed notes in columns: points to make (far too many); what BP did wrong (a very long list); what BP did right (one thing); background info (yards). I edited. I added. I cut. I pasted back in. I researched some more. My palms became very sticky. I recited and recited as if I were going to appear on Broadway. I changed quickly (it was only radio but who might I bump into?) and I set off, collected by BBC taxi, intent on refining my three main points, my anecdotes, my extra bits – everything – on the way.

Stuck in no-moving traffic, a car next to ours had Radio 4 blaring a commentary on the cruel slaughtering of Tony Hayward by US journalists just before he faced the US Congress. Swotting notes became a lower priority; I listened to the latest – feeling even more sorry for this non-media-savvy guy.

I arrived just as the programme went on air – ie late. And I now have a second authoritative piece of advice to give. The first (irrelevant to me on radio) is: if you are appearing on a television programme and are offered make-up, accept. This is nothing to do with vanity; it is about recognising that the broadcaster knows its interviewees look better without shiny noses or peculiar complexions. And the second titbit is, if the programme asks if you’d like a taxi to pick you up, accept. Yes, in this era of austerity, publicly funded organisations need to cut back and I did feel guilty. But, as I found out, if you get stuck in traffic and arrive late, it helps if it’s not your fault. (And I took up the offer of a taxi home, too, and very glad I was as concentrating for an hour left me dazed and confused and I’m not sure I’d have made it to the tube.)

It was hard work but it was also a lot of fun. I was the only person in the studio; contributors spoke down the line from the US, India, Nigeria and the UK; opinion on the other side of the Atlantic is mostly poisonous – there is no hanging onto pride to bring a bit of balance; the newsreader slipped in and slipped out again like silk; I ran out of water and rather haughtily summoned some more – what a prima donna! – and I managed not only to keep my cool but also to say what I needed to say. More or less.

It feels a bit egotistical to say this but … you can catch the programme on BBC iPlayer for a week on one of these two links: http://ow.ly/1ZZu7 or
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p0082kxs/p0082l0f/World_Have_Your_Say_17_06_2010

How did I do?  My crisis to manage was to ensure, as far as I could, that I would be seen to do what I advise my clients to do. I stumbled over one question (I’d never castigate a client about that; it’s a human reaction); I said “um” a couple of times (but not, I think, to an irritating extent); and I missed a couple of chances to make other points (but this was a roving discussion where mixed views mattered). Did I prepare three main points? Yes. Did I put them across? Yes. Did I have anecdotes for each? Yes. Did I use them all? No but that’s typical. Did I vary my pace and my voice enough to engage the audience? That’s for you to decide. Let me know what you think – all comments welcome and I’d rather have brutal honesty than polite fudge.

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Another gaffe from the BP gaffer

Never ad lib. Not during a crisis. It’s a golden rule. Another is not to speak of personal feelings unless they relate to the people who have been affected by the disaster. If Tony Hayward’s comment “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” was in his script, he was either given bad advice, or he ignored good advice, or he spoke off the cuff. We may never know which – but my suspicion is that it was a spur of the moment comment. It missed the mark.

And he did it again. After making a very sensible statement in his first sentence: “It’s right that I should be the lightning rod because it allows everyone else to get on with their jobs.” he wrecked it by adding un-chosen words: “I’ve got a pretty thick Kevlar jacket and I’m so far unscathed. No one has actually physically harmed me. They’ve thrown a few words at me, but I’m a Brit. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

As anyone who has ever been involved in crisis management knows, exhaustion and pressure take their toll. Adrenaline kicks in but it only serves to keep you going; it does not help maintain rational thought. That’s why businesses have crisis management plans: prepared in calm times, away from unusual pressures, measured, tempered, rounded – and to be followed. Of course, even the best plan will need to be adapted but, if it is well-crafted, it will convey the tone that should be maintained, reminding those under pressure not just of what they should say but also how to say it. Mid-crisis is not the time to deviate wildly; if your plan is sound, all that’s needed is a little adaptation.

As for expressing your feelings, the feelings that matter are those you have for the people who have been affected. If yours is a genuine response, it will be etched on your face. Likewise, if you are being disingenuous it will show. Remember Putin appearing after the Polish air crash? There was no doubting the sincerity of his feelings or the gravity with which he was taking his role. He didn’t quip about being dragged away from his everyday life – or brag about being so thick-skinned that it wouldn’t touch him.

It is incredibly easy to drop your guard when you are under relentless pressure. It is also easy to get ratty, curmudgeonly, annoyed at yet another barbed comment or sniping question. The temptation to wrap up questions, interviews or press conferences with neat one-liners or self-deprecating jokes, will be huge. Don’t. At the risk of repeating myself, repeat yourself by sticking rigidly to your script.

I feel sorry for Tony Hayward. His performance at his conference call with analysts showed him to be absolutely on top of his brief as CEO. He is, like all of us, prone to being human and dropping his guard was his failure. Now his future looks bleak and his present even bleaker. He will feel overwhelmed, shattered, worried, displaced, under attack and, probably, rather alone. If ever there was a time for him to to learn his lines, this is it.

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BP strolls to self-destruction

Its share price has plummeted, shaking shareholder confidence still further and threatening the UK economy. And it has faced attack from foes in many guises: Greenpeace scaled one of its buildings, unfurling a flag proclaiming it as British Polluters; its Twitter account was hijacked (though the offending Tweet was removed after about 30 minutes); and the US president has promised a criminal prosecution if a criminal act has been committed.

And only now has it moved to take on a high-profile, ex-White House crisis communications expert to help it get some positive media coverage in the US. It also needs positive media coverage here.

The tragedy with the BP crisis is that it could have been so different. And that is the tragedy for every crisis when its management gets off to a bad start.

There are two unshakeable facts about crises. First, if a crisis is badly managed, the damage to the company’s reputation may far exceed the financial cost of the disaster. Secondly, businesses that communicate effectively during a crisis may win new credibility and higher levels of respect than they had before. So, yes, spending money on crisis management and crisis media management is essential – and it has to happen before any crisis starts.

I wonder if Tony Hayward has picked up the phone to the White House. He should have done – early on.  He should have been on Fourchon Beach, Louisiana, with the president, taking in the same view of the impending impact of the oil on the shore and pledging, to the world’s media as commanded by Obama, that BP would do all it could to stop the flow and rectify the damage. If he has been communicating with the White House and President Obama is refusing to say so, that is tough. Deciding whether to go public on this is a huge risk – but it is a risk worth taking. So, given that BP has not yet said it has spoken to the White House, we can only assume it hasn’t.

No wonder Obama has been able to run rings round BP. With a potential crisis on his hands, he took control – just as Tony Hayward should have done –dramatically emphasising how tarnished BP’s reputation now is and making it look slower, weaker, even more amateur.

The rules to follow to achieve good crisis management are very few, very simple – and very tried and tested. Companies that decide to do their own thing opt for self-destruction.

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BP oil slick not so slick – Take advice from a duchess

Three crises are bubbling away at the moment: the BP oil slick that has incurred the wrath of a US president, the Duchess of York’s latest foot in mouth episode, and the continuing BA crisis.

It’s a mystery to me why people at the very top of their worlds (and you can’t get much higher up the oil world than BP) fail to see common sense. When a crisis happens, you cannot hope to survive it with your reputation intact if you use weasel words. Yes, there will be some circumstances in which it is genuinely unclear who is to blame. But if you are responsible you must put up your hands and fess up – immediately. If you are in a group or consortium (or whatever else, tightly bound or loosely formed), you must do this together. Passing the buck will never, ever work in your favour.

Those of us who can remember the first Mandelson episode will not need to be persuaded. He denied and denied and denied but, much later, had to own up – by which time he had lost all credibility. While he is perhaps our most successful come back kid, very few people take him seriously. He is seen as a bit of a rogue, perhaps with an endearing quality, but he’s not someone you would trust with the truth. When he recently pronounced on the importance of propriety in parliament, there can be very few of us who didn’t snigger at his bare-faced cheek.

So why do we keep on hoping that denying is the right way out? By putting the blame on Transocean, Tony Hayward of BP made a catastrophic error. He looked weak and untrustworthy and he made BP look weak and irresponsible. At the very least, he should have teamed up with Transocean to show that they would work together to stop the flow of oil, investigate the cause and deal with its symptoms. Instead, he chose equivocation and he passed the buck. He now has President Obama breathing down his neck (cleverly saying that the buck stops with him) and a damaged personal reputation that will affect his career prospects whenever he leaves BP, which may be sooner than he hoped given the consequence of his inactions and denials. As for BP’s reputation, that continues to be denigrated with families of the 11 people who died in BP’s other crisis (the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig which then sank, causing the oil leak) saying that today’s memorial service for those who died was no more than a show.

Fergie gets it right

Meanwhile, Fergie, for all her clumsiness and lack of business nous, knew exactly how to attempt to salvage whatever reputation she might have. And for her, the most important consequence of her foot-in-mouth proneness is her status with HM The Queen, her ex-husband The Duke of York and her daughters (all of whose good will she needs, not to mention their financial support). Also of importance, again for status and money, she needs to minimise the impact it might have on her future earning power among commercial sponsors.

So, apologising for a lapse of judgement was the right thing to do. And she did it swiftly. While you could argue that she had no choice (a recording of her grandiose claims was the strongest evidence possible) she could have argued she was duped or joshing or … it matters not. Her immediate apology and admission of failure minimised the size of the potential fuss that followed. The fact that she has done this before, following the same yes-I-did-it policy, and will no doubt do it again, has done her much less harm than if she had wriggled and fudged. In that sense, her behaviour is exemplary.

BA spin keeps spinning

As for BA, at last the media is beginning to look beyond the corporate spin. Until now, only The Guardian dared to see through the BA corporate comms department’s puffery, putting across the crew’s case in a considered and measured way. Others simply ignored it or paid lip service to it, perhaps publishing a batch of letters from crew without adding any editorial comment (as did the paper I read), as if to say “we have to publish this for balance but we think it’s a load of old rubbish”. If any rubbish is being strewn about, it is by BA.

With a corporate history that includes the raid on Virgin’s computers, as sanctioned by the BA board, BA’s reputation is becoming more and more tarnished. It’s a splendid example of what not to do. But don’t think you can get away with the same approach. It takes generations to build the sort of relationships BA has with the media – and if you betray those relationships, as BA has done, who knows what wrath might follow (when those journalists see they have been duped).

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