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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Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

Why is it that some people find it so hard to say sorry? There are three issues raging away as I write this: the Pope’s visit to England; the trapped Chilean miners; and the computer cock up over at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). All of them involve, to some degree, the all too frequent failure of people or organisations to say sorry. I’ll deal with the first two in separate posts. This is about the English tax man giving us another reason to treat him as a hate figure.

It was, in fact, all the computer’s fault. The massively expensive computer system that calculates our tax liabilities – and which everyone but the ministers and civil servants who run the computer contract believed would go wrong – did go wrong. Lots of people have not paid enough tax. Quite a lot of people paid too much. HMRC announced the fact, and details of how it would rectify the problem, without expressing any sympathy for the people who will have to stump up their unexpected shortfalls.

In the middle of a deep recession, and with the government emphasising at every opportunity that we have to be prepared for deep cuts, the common sense response from the vast majority of tax payers was a metaphorical shrug. They saw a structural problem (a useless computer system) was the cause, realised that if they’d been on the winning side they’d have wanted their refunds so, from the losing side, understood they’d have to do their bit. At least HMRC would take the money in stages, easing the pain.

But a simple “sorry” was missing. And that gave the media a chance to whip up a story of outrage.

This is how it goes – time after time after time. If you make a mistake, not saying sorry gives your opponents a chance to niggle away having spotted a weakness. Your reputation comes under attack and, guess what … you end up saying sorry – for even more mistakes. Just as HMRC did this week:

“I know how to apologise, I’ve had to do it before. I did not do it then and I am sorry for that,” said Dave Hartnett, head of HMRC. Well, it’s a sort of apology, in a roundabout way, and hardly the fulsome, hands-up surrender we all wanted.

If you want to emerge from a crisis with your reputation enhanced, rather than in tatters, say sorry – and say it at the start. As I said in an earlier post, an apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt. Saying “sorry it happened” is not the same as saying “sorry, I did it”. In the case of HMRC, it was guilty – and still it didn’t say sorry. And we now hate the tax man even more.

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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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