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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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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BP strolls to self-destruction

Its share price has plummeted, shaking shareholder confidence still further and threatening the UK economy. And it has faced attack from foes in many guises: Greenpeace scaled one of its buildings, unfurling a flag proclaiming it as British Polluters; its Twitter account was hijacked (though the offending Tweet was removed after about 30 minutes); and the US president has promised a criminal prosecution if a criminal act has been committed.

And only now has it moved to take on a high-profile, ex-White House crisis communications expert to help it get some positive media coverage in the US. It also needs positive media coverage here.

The tragedy with the BP crisis is that it could have been so different. And that is the tragedy for every crisis when its management gets off to a bad start.

There are two unshakeable facts about crises. First, if a crisis is badly managed, the damage to the company’s reputation may far exceed the financial cost of the disaster. Secondly, businesses that communicate effectively during a crisis may win new credibility and higher levels of respect than they had before. So, yes, spending money on crisis management and crisis media management is essential – and it has to happen before any crisis starts.

I wonder if Tony Hayward has picked up the phone to the White House. He should have done – early on.  He should have been on Fourchon Beach, Louisiana, with the president, taking in the same view of the impending impact of the oil on the shore and pledging, to the world’s media as commanded by Obama, that BP would do all it could to stop the flow and rectify the damage. If he has been communicating with the White House and President Obama is refusing to say so, that is tough. Deciding whether to go public on this is a huge risk – but it is a risk worth taking. So, given that BP has not yet said it has spoken to the White House, we can only assume it hasn’t.

No wonder Obama has been able to run rings round BP. With a potential crisis on his hands, he took control – just as Tony Hayward should have done –dramatically emphasising how tarnished BP’s reputation now is and making it look slower, weaker, even more amateur.

The rules to follow to achieve good crisis management are very few, very simple – and very tried and tested. Companies that decide to do their own thing opt for self-destruction.

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An unprepared duchess gets it so very wrong

Having praised Fergie for her hands-up-I-did-it response when she’d been caught selling her ex-husband’s influence, I must now put her in the getting it wrong category. It is good crisis management to do as she did at the start. It is bad crisis management to follow it up with an unprepared meander through a self-obsessed stream of consciousness, if consciousness it was.

This is where preparation becomes the point. No one should ever submit themselves to a media interview unless they are as sure as it is possible to be that they will not end up in submission. And being sure only comes after diligent preparation including rehearsals. Hoping for a sympathetic response by exposing an inner vulnerability just doesn’t cut it – especially if your reputation is already shaky.

There may be times when business leaders have to put themselves in the spotlight – and sometimes they will need to do so very speedily. Being prepared means anticipating the worst well in advance so that when it happens you are ready. There is no point in relying on a quick run through answers to possible questions while you are in the back of a cab on the way to the studio. That is not preparation; it is risky recklessness.

If you have a crisis management plan, well done. But when did you last shake off the dust on it and check through it, making sure both that it is up to date and that you are up to speed? And if you haven’t got one … be prepared for the sort of counter-attack Fergie has had today – lambasted around the world in newspapers, on radio and television, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and surely not in only one blog …

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Twitter and Facebook need senior attention

So, according to this morning’s PR Week news bulletin, Nestlé has been facing a barrage of criticism on Twitter and Facebook. At issue is its use in Kit Kats of palm oil from Sinar Mas, an Indonesian company accused of illegal deforestation of rainforests. Greenpeace has highlighted the case.

Nestlé’s response to the criticisms has been inadequate, Facebook users say, and it seems that it’s because, yet again, an important task has been delegated to the wrong person – someone junior who wasn’t using an appropriate tone.

This is a classic. In any crisis, responsibility needs to be taken at the highest level; responses should come from the top. Even if the most senior person can’t physically hit the keyboard, the content and tone should be agreed at that level. And, yes, that applies to comments on Twitter and Facebook. Just because these social media are often used by the young (though recent research found younger people were deserting them), they are also frequently used by people of any age and any seniority. Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, is not a one-off. And words travel fast, around the world, in this 24-hour publishing medium.

The potential impact of social media in a crisis is massive – and it could be good or bad. Of that there should never have been any doubt – as Nestlé has, through its errors, found out.

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