When is resignation right for crisis management?

Rebekah Brooks took far too long to realise that the only option left open to her to protect her reputation (such as it now is) and, more importantly, News International’s reputation (such as it now is) was for her to resign. She might have had “total” support from Rupert Murdoch six days ago but there was little evidence of support outside the murky Murdoch world and it is always the outside view that counts for more.

It was not only crisis management experts who were aghast at her brazen attitude by clinging on, not to mention their brazen attitude by holding a surreal walkabout in an attempt to show that they were all in this together. We knew they were all in this together – up to their necks in it together – but it was not the togetherness that mattered. It was the subject – and the public was aghast at their arrogant attempts at toughing it out.

When crisis management gets to the point where you think the right thing to do is to tough it out – it’s not. It’s time to bow out – because you have made the wrong thing (you) the focus. If the crisis affects the business, it is the business’s reputation, not yours, that matters.

So, when should Rebekah Brooks have resigned?

She was not editor of the News of the World when, in 2005, Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal editor, and Glenn Mulcaire, private investigator, were arrested for illegally phone hacking Prince William’s phone. Nor was she editor of the News of the World when, in 2007, Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed. She was editor of The Sun. She was promoted to chief executive of News International on 1st Sepember 2009 at which point she became responsible, overall, for all the newspapers in the News International group. Phone hacking must have been on her agenda as a topic of concern; she should immediately have ordered, and announced, a clean sweep through all News International’s policies and set new standards.

When, in February 2010, the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee said it thought it inconceivable that no-one other than Clive Goodman knew about phone hacking at the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks should have announced that she had taken action to find out what exactly was going on and act on her findings. You can’t be at the top and ignore what is going on – even if the allegations apply to a time when you were not associated with the News of the World. It is now, and the future, that matter.

New allegations emerged in September 2010; Scotland Yard reopened its inquiry and the story began to snowball. The spotlight fell on Andy Coulson more than on Rebekah Brooks – but what was she up to, as chief executive? Instigating changes? Apologising? Or just hanging on?

In April 2011 News International apologised to some of those whose phones were hacked – and set aside a £15m fund for compensation claims. Resigning now, allowing a new chief executive to clear things up, would have meant a short, sharp burst of publicity followed by recovery. But she hung on.

On 4th July, The Guardian alleged that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone when Rebekah Brooks was editor of the News of the World. And what was her reaction? To shift blame by saying that she was on holiday. Astonishing. It did not wash. If you are in charge, you take responsibility whether you are working at your desk or paddling in the sea. It is your policy and your approach which are being followed – wherever you are. And if it is going on behind your back, all the public can conclude is that you are a weak and ineffective leader. You must go.

Arguing that you need to stay to oversee the clean up operation – otherwise known as doing a Willie Walsh – is short-term desperation that has nothing to do with saving the business; it is about saving you. Rebekah Brooks’ stance was indefensible as chief executive; it did even more damage to her own reputation, News of the World’s reputation, and News International’s reputation. It was clear that she was not up to the job. But still she hung on.

Hanging on is almost always a sign of ego getting in the way of business sense. If you want to limit the damage of a crisis, the time to resign is the minute it begins to affect the reputation of the business (or your own, if it is a personal crisis). Hanging on only prolongs the agony by highlighting wrongdoings (more claims, more criticism from public figures including prime minister David Cameron, the FBI, a major shareholder); increasing risks to other aspects of the business (BSkyB, ownership of other News International titles, US titles, other titles around the world); and sends costs spiralling – and not just the cost of flying in from afar, time spent at meetings and advertisements to say sorry and we won’t do it again, it is the costs-to-come of repairing a now much more seriously damaged reputation: Rebekah Brooks’ reputation, News International’s reputation, News Corp’s reputation, Rupert Murdoch’s reputation, James Murdoch’s reputation and, inevitably, the reputation of the entire British press.

Ironically, we might end up thanking Rebekah Brooks for hanging on while doing nothing at News International and inadvertently tackling tabloid tactics.

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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. [http://ow.ly/38qZ4]  They have also added an even shorter statement about the 50 arrests made as a result. [http://ow.ly/38rKP]

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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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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Polish air crash: risking reputations

Today’s tragedy in Russia is unprecedented. Three things strike me. First, did the Polish government anticipate that such a crisis might occur, and prepare what to do and what to say in its aftermath? Secondly, how hard it must be for the families of ordinary passengers who were killed in the crash (in this case, the crew) when so much publicity and talk is about the deaths of government and military leaders. Thirdly, the situation is instantly complicated when there are rivalries or tensions between those involved: Poland and Russia.

Russia’s Putin appeared very swiftly, the impact of the tragedy etched on his face, taking control of the investigation. Good move. Meanwhile, the Russian flight control centre was swift to condemn the crew, by which they mean the pilots, for allegedly ignoring advice to divert and land elsewhere – presumably to place the blame firmly on Poland. Not a good move.

We in the UK must, I hope, have a crisis management plan in the event of major politicians and leaders being killed at the same time. There are several occasions a year when they are gathered together – or, at least, when significant groups of them are together. And, as most of them will be significant events – the state opening of parliament, the Mansion House speech, visits from foreign heads of state, royal weddings and funerals – security will be intense and massive, reducing the risk of a catastrophe. I hope there are rules about how many of them fly together, to minimise those risks – as with the monarch who never flies in the same plane as the heir to the throne, as with the US president and vice-president who are not allowed to fly together, and as with corporates where, typically, no more than two key leaders travel together precisely to ensure that the business can be run if those leaders were to be involved or killed in an accident.

I hope whatever plan we have takes into account the need to stress that the lives of ordinary people affected by any incident matter just as much – and to keep emphasising the point. The effect on and the grief of their family and friends must be recognised.

As for allegations about the pilots ignoring instructions, it is unusual for any facts about a crash to be known so soon afterwards. Typically, the black box needs to be analysed before facts emerge. If the comments are an attempt to shift blame … tut, tut, tut. And how might it make the pilots’ family and friends feel, perhaps unnecessarily? What might it do to the relationship between Russia and Poland if the black box reveals otherwise? And how will that affect Russia’s standing in the world? It’s far too early to assume that anything is fact.

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