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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Gordon Ramsay’s silence turns up the heat of his crisis

As the Gordon-Ramsay-sacks-his-father-in-law story continues at a racing boil, I find myself descending into deepening despair.

Since Gordon published his impetuously-written letter to his mother-in-law, Greta Hutcheson, stories have emerged claiming that he also sacked his wife’s brother (Adam Hutcheson) and nephew (Christopher Hutcheson); that his father-in-law (Chris Hutcheson) has threatened to take Ramsay to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal; and that father-in-law Chris has snatched Petrus from the Ramsay empire.

And, inevitably, we’ve been reminded of Gordon’s past demeanours, not only by a default jogging of our memories as is typical in a crisis.

And what has Gordon said to bring an end to this farcical family feud? Nothing, given that the statement “A spokesman for Ramsay declined to comment.” doesn’t add up to a row of cooked-to-perfection beans.

Why do people think that silence is the way to deal with a crisis?

If they see it as “dignified”, they forget that journalists need words and if you don’t provide them, someone else will – with no thought for your dignity.

If they think it will stop the story from racing away, they forget that silence allows the media to speculate, and speculate they will – giving legs not only to this story but also to those from the past.

If they think it will reduce legal or insurance risks, they forget that silence affects their reputation for the long-term – the cost of which is far greater than that of short-term compensation bills.

When people say the right things in a crisis, it builds confidence, trust and support. And that will almost certainly mean their businesses will emerge with their reputations enhanced.

The trouble with Gordon is that he seems to crave attention. If he needs to make headlines, perhaps it doesn’t matter what those headlines are as long as they keep him in the spotlight. Perhaps he doesn’t mind if his restaurant business (or anything else – his marriage?) goes bust as he’ll be in the news again.

When a business is run by a talented (and chef Ramsay is undoubtedly talented) maverick, predicting the crises that might arise is virtually impossible. But, even if his crisis management plan is full of holes, it doesn’t mean silence is the only option. If he isn’t up to speaking direct to the media (he might be in emotional turmoil, struggling to keep himself and his family together), surely someone in his extensive coterie could muster something better than the unforgivable “no comment”?

Being able to draw together a few, short, circumspect words is often all that is needed to turn a crisis round. And, being Gordon, he might even get away with using his favourite f-word – as in “I’m sorry, I really f****d up”.

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Gordon Ramsay’s reputation hit again

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

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

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

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

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

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