What price for an apology, Thomas Cook?

Here we go again. Another business that has failed in its corporate duty, this time holiday company Thomas Cook, won’t say sorry.

Nearly nine years ago, in October 2006, two young children – six year old Bobby and seven year old Christi Shepherd – died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Two adults, the children’s father Neil Shepherd and his then partner now wife Ruth, were found unconscious and near death in a bungalow in the grounds of a hotel in Corfu.

Yes, the faulty boiler was the responsibility of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel in Corfu – that they are to blame is without doubt and, in 2010, three of its employees were found guilty of manslaughter. But travellers expect companies such as Thomas Cook, self-described as “the best-known name in travel” and in business for 174 years, to check that the hotels it recommends are safe. The hotel was found to have misled or lied to Thomas Cook about gas in the hotel. But Thomas Cook was found not to have conducted tests itself. There was no apology when the tragedy happened and no apology after the trial in Corfu.

Last week, Thomas Cook was given another chance to apologise. So what did the chief executive say? “We have nothing to apologise for.”

Now, the morning after the inquest jury delivered its damning verdict, and despite very tough words making very tough headlines including on national television news, Thomas Cook still hasn’t apologised. It should “hang its head in shame” the lawyer representing the children’s parents said. It “breached its duty of care” the jury found. The children’s mother, Sharon Wood, said of Thomas Cook, “I will always hold Thomas Cook responsible for their deaths”. And still no apology.

When would Thomas Cook think it is appropriate to say sorry? How many deaths would it take? What age must the children be? Should adults die too?

There are wider implications, as there often are with corporate reputation crises. The coroner is expected to make recommendations to the whole travel industry – and rightly so. One company’s devastating error is a potential reputation crisis for others. Other travel companies should already be busy reviewing their risk assessments, revising their policies, and implementing actions that minimise risks not only from decrepit boilers but also across every possible aspect of the travel industry. Travel companies owe it to travellers – that’s you and me – to take appropriate care including by doing all they can to ensure third parties don’t put us at risk.

A look at Thomas Cook’s website just now shows that there is nothing on it about this tragedy. Not a word of regret – not in 2006, not in 2010, not now – and, of course, no apology. Instead, the home page states that holiday-makers can “escape the everyday, enjoy new experiences, indulge in relaxation and focus on quality time with your family and friends”. It tells us to “Trust Thomas Cook to make your holidays truly special” and that “There are no compromises to be made on a Thomas Cook holiday”. I can’t imagine that Neil and Ruth Shepherd and Sharon Wood find those words easy to read.

That’s not the only website calamity. The most recent press release, published in February, invites Thomas Cook customers to create their own personalised holiday brochure cover, from their holiday memories, for a chance to win a dream holiday. Even in good times, this sort of competition opens businesses up to criticism. There will always be some complaints; there will always be people who want to get some revenge for their mistreatment by entering negative examples; competitions, borne out of corporate arrogance, can go disastrously wrong. “Whether it’s a portrait of quality time together as a family or a snapshot of a group of friends simply having fun, customers can celebrate their real good times abroad,” the blurb says. What will the Shepherd and Wood families make of that?

Thomas Cook may well have taken steps since 2006 to be more careful about where it sends its dream-holiday-seekers but that isn’t enough. For a business that has been in business since 1841, it appears to have learned very little about taking responsibility – which it must do and fast.

The word ‘sorry’ remains the largest tag in my blog because of its absence in words spoken when dealing with a reputation crisis. Time after time, businesses and people fail to take responsibility for their actions or inactions; they fail to say sorry. Yet, saying sorry – at least apologising for what has happened, even if the company or people concerned aren’t to blame for failings and can’t say ‘sorry we did it’ – is the single most important action to take to minimise damage to reputation. If Thomas Cook wants to rebuild its reputation, it must say sorry.

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Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell get their apologies wrong

The public debates still rage about whether deputy prime minister Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for making a pledge he didn’t keep about tuition fees – and whether chief whip Andrew Mitchell described the police as “plebs” when he was asked to cycle through a side gate, rather than the main gate, at Downing Street.

Let’s leave aside the distractions drummed up by the media – whether Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for not keeping his promise (rather than for making a promise he was not certain he could keep – it’s a subtle distinction) and what exactly Andrew Mitchell has apologised for – and focus on the effects of their apologies.

They used very different tactics. Nick Clegg stood in front of a camera and used a party political broadcast to speak direct to millions. Andrew Mitchell talked on the phone to the policeman he swore at and issued a statement for journalists to pass on to the public. Assuming that both Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell hoped to limit the damage to their reputations, neither apology worked. Why?

It’s easy to see why Andrew Mitchell’s initial apology failed. First, being visible when apologising is almost always essential, even more so if you hold high office. If you can’t be seen while you are communicating, the assumption will be that you have something to hide. Secondly, according to press reports (which, as everyone knows, might not be accurate) his public statement appears to have been not wholly true. Having first said he did not accept that he “used any of the words that have been reported”, he apparently later admitted saying “fucking” though he continues to deny saying “plebs”. His statement this morning – a second failed attempt to close down the story – leaves the issue just as wide open; he said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that have been attributed to me”. On being pressed about whether he swore, he said he was going to go in and get on with his work, pursued by journalists wanting a full answer to a simple question: what did he say?

If you’ve done something wrong, admit it – fast and in full. Holding back information that might emerge later is a short-term quick-fix high-risk strategy. The facts almost always come out – no matter how powerful or above the law you believe you are and especially when, as in this case, others were present or involved in the incident. Getting all the bad news out in one go at the start curtails speculation, clarifies the picture, controls the debate, clears the air and allows you to start working on rebuilding your reputation. A drip, drip, drip approach to communication causes far more damage – the original misdemeanour will be repeated every time new information ekes out, and the voices of your detractors will become louder and more persuasive. No surprise that it generated strong opinions on Twitter – and raked up earlier examples of arrogance and unflattering nicknames.

In Nick Clegg’s case, it was not the judicious-for-him timing or the somewhat naïve wording of his statement that turned his apology into a crisis. It was his facial expressions and forced vocal emphasis; they did not seem genuine. His face often lacks movement so to see his eyebrows lurching up and down at judicious moments and his head tilting as if to emphasise sincerity, appeared unnatural. I wondered if he’d been practising in front of a mirror, acting and speaking in a way he thought would look and sound right, rather than behaving normally. Apologies must be honest and truthful – which includes being true to yourself, not creating a pastiche or caricature. No wonder it spawned a spoof video on YouTube.

Two politicians, two crises, two apologies – both generating strong criticism and long-running debates. Even allowing for the fact that they occurred at sensitive times (for Nick Clegg it was the Liberal Democrat party conference and a need to prevent a leadership challenge – also the perfect springboard, in an ironic twist, for him to urge Andrew Mitchell to come clean); for Andrew Mitchell it was the tragic murder of two women PCs) neither needed to get so out of hand.

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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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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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When the people speak, so must you

What is it about people in power that makes them so blinkered, so sure they can overcome a crisis by ignoring the clamour and staying silent?

It’s been obvious to most of us ordinary people for at least a couple of days that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had only one option – to resign and let others take over. With so many people taking to the streets – and then with the army turning coats and supporting, rather than policing, them – how on earth did he and his government think they could carry on? At what point did they think Egyptian citizens were going to retreat, in an ok then sort of way, as if they weren’t serious about their demands?

Of course it is hard if leaders of other countries – and especially the president of the USA – issue statements about the importance of an orderly transition, recommending that you stay on to manage the handover. You are bound to feel flattered, to boost your own self-belief and then, puffed up with self-importance, to cling to power – because it isn’t just your yes-men who are saying what you want to hear, it’s, wow, it’s Obama! And it could have worked – or at least the uprising could have been less dramatic and less prolonged, if only …

Mubarak should have communicated – then acted. Contrition, acknowledgement, a promise of reform – followed by reform – and he might just have clinched it (though he would have been dogged by doubts about whether he had genuinely changed his political instincts).

Instead, today was the second time he has spoken since the uprising began. That’s twice in seven days. It doesn’t exactly indicate that he’s a leader in control – but taking control of the situation is exactly what leaders must do in a crisis and they must do it from the start and stay in it.

The only way to demonstrate control is to speak – as long as you talk of decisive actions – and then to do as you say. Instead Mubarak stayed silent until forced – by the increasing force of the people – to say something. Except it was the wrong thing.

What Egyptian people want is a new way of governing and that means Mubarak has to go. Now, after days of silence, that is the only thing left for him to say.

Sadly, it’s a case of here we go again. Again.

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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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Being sorry is never enough

The real tragedy of this crisis is that it’s a repeat. The Pope’s in town and he’s just given what even the media has described as a profound apology – for the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church.

“I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes,” he said, adding: “I also acknowledge the shame and humiliation that all of us have felt”.

“It’s his most profound apology in public; he’s truly contrite,” was how one of his stooges put it. “Profound and touching,” said a media commentator.

But it’s not enough.

As I said in my blog in April, while an apology is essential, it must be accompanied by a pledge to do something to right the wrong and that pledge must then be fulfilled. If your crisis also drags up other concerns – in this case, the Catholic church’s struggle with homosexuality, gay rights, safe sex, contraception and abortion – even a profound apology sounds circumspect rather than genuine.

When you’ve said the same thing before – as did the Pope in April, though not in such profound terms – it’s not even circumspect. It’s hollow.

The Catholic church may well need to reiterate its apology many more times for many years to come but it also has to commit itself to decisive action, not just repeated words, if it is to overcome its heavily tarnished reputation.

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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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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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