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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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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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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