The Biter Bit

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MC900431521MISS

 

The BBC’s Panorama programme is in a terrible tizz this week, defending its use of covert filming in North Korea and the involvement of a group of students as cover. The story seems to revolve around the issue of the consent of the students to what was happening around them and the role of their University, The London School of Economics.

I’m sure there must be many PR people quietly smiling at Panorama’s predicament having been on the receiving end of their attention in the past.

I speak here from personal experience, and whilst scadenfreud is a rather dirty thought process I can’t help feeling the biter is now being bit. My own experience of Panorams was in relation to a programme in which the organisation I was PRO for wasn’t the main focus of their story, but a key associated player. It was clear that they had decided what the story was before they gathered the information and did their filming with my organisation, and that they were quite happy to play fast and free with some of the facts to make them fit their storyline.

Both this, and much of what has emerged during the Leveson enquiry has made me question the power balance that exists between the media and the corporate bodies they report on. The public image the media like to promote is that as journalists they are the guardians of truth, that they are in some way special and that only they can be trusted to act on behalf of society as a whole.

The breakdown in media standards we have seen emerge into the public glare over recent months has tainted this image and as a result the power balance, which has in fact been heavily weighted in the media’s favour, may be shifting as the moral highground they have claimed for so long sinks to the level of any corporate body or profession trying to get along in the world.

Perhaps at the very least some journalists are now recognising that picking fault is easy – getting it right in the first place can be very very hard.

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Ambush tactics

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HIT for David Cameron

MISS for ITV This Morning Show

 

The Paedophile scandal tsunami sweeping Britain at the moment got close to getting out of hand this morning when Phillip Scofield (not someone known for his investigative reporting) ambushed the PM on his “This Morning” TV show on ITV with a list of names gathered from the internet of alleged paedophiles in the Conservative party (Story here.) The reputation of one was enhanced, the reputation of the other degraded.

Schofield asked Cameron if he would be speaking to the people named, and the PM responded with a warning about “a witch-hunt” driven by unsubstantiated rumours about party members past and present named on the internet.

First of all, David Cameron scores a hit for the way he dealt with this live TV ambush. His media skills were well up to the mark this morning. When something like this happens on live TV it’s hard to maintain composure and with an issue like this easy to respond in a populist manner, yet he rightly stuck to his line that any allegations need to be directed to the Police, and pointed out very firmly that there is a real danger in picking names off the internet which may be there without any basis whatsoever. As a result he appeared in control, capable of seeing the wider picture and offered a degree of gravitas lacking in the event itself.

Second I think this is a Miss in PR terms for ITV as not only did it make the presenter look rather poor in journalistic terms (no self respecting journalist would admit to taking information from the internet at face value) but the stunt of passing the paper to the PM over the table on live TV risked the names being seen opening up the potential for legal action by people potentially slandered. (The Telegraph blurred the paper to obscure the names when re-running the footage for this very reason, and the PM himself placed it face down on the table). Furthermore, just as New Labour shunned The Today programme on Radio 4, it would be no surprise to see “This Morning” getting the cold shoulder in future from the present government.

The issue of child abuse in institutional settings is clearly a serious one, but crass, opportunistic stunts like this do nothing to shed light on the matter, nor do they treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Taking the rap.

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MISS

 

I feel a bit bad rating the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville allegations a miss – because I’ve been there and know how hard it is, as a corporate body, to take the rap for the behaviour of an individual employed by you.

Loyalty between an organisation and its staff, and staff to an organisation is a laudable trait – but it has a dark side for people working in PR tasked with protecting an organisation’s reputation.

The gradual shift of approach by the BBC in response to allegations about Jimmy Saville reflects many an organisation’s reaction to a member of staff being the focus of criticism, not about their corporate behaviour (ie their actual work on behalf of the organisation), but their personal behaviour.

The initial response is to protect the individual (in the BBC’s case an individual with a high public profile and massive public appeal who had been an employee for decades), this protection becoming more and more difficult and strained as more information emerges (as it always does in crisis situations) until they have to respond with a commitment to investigate.

Of course by then the damage has been done, the corporate body has been seen to be slow / reluctant to act and therefore becomes implicated in the story – a passive accomplice to the personal actions of the individual.

Now, clearly in the case of the BBC there are other issues – some of the allegations are said to revolve around activity carried out on BBC premises and with other BBC staff “in the know” – but the general pattern of response is a common one.

Organisations do not like to turn on their own.

Yet people who care about organisational reputation need to be able to push the pace of response, and have to be prepared to cut individuals loose early on if necessary. The truth is no organisation sets out to have staff doing the kind of things Jimmy Saville is accused of, and the organisation’s trust in him as an employee has been betrayed. In reputational terms the organisation becomes another victim.

When an allegation like the Jimmy Saville stories breaks it’s like a bottle of ink being knocked over – the stain spreads quickly and over a wide area if it isn’t blotted up at once.

What the BBC are saying now, some three to four days after the story broke, is correct – it’s a Police matter first and after they have investigated the BBC will look at their own failings. It appears as though  they have now “cut loose” Sir Jimmy.

The problem is, the stain has already spread, and there will be an awful lot of people wanting to look into a great many areas of the organisation to see how deeply tainted they are.

As always speed is of the essence in crisis comms – but it’s not just communication response time that matters in these kind of issues. It’s the will to act, and act quickly against individuals who threaten your corporate reputation, distancing the body corporate from their personal behaviour and acts that really matters.

Sorry should never be the hardest word

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The apology, 50 years after the event by German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal to the people affected by its Thalidomide drug in the 1960s should act as a lesson to any company dealing with the consequences of corporate mistakes.

See – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19448046

When I am counselling clients about corporate crisis situations I recommend, that if there are victims of their corporate mistakes, they apologise as soon as possible – to fail to do this leaves a stain on the corporate reputation which will always be pointed out.

The way I like to describe this is to imagine you are walking through a bar and you accidentally knock someone’s glass of wine over, covering them in house red. What would you do?

Our natural human response is to first apologise (and probably say what a clutz you were for brushing against their glass) and then probably offer to buy another glass and , if the spillage was bad, to pay for dry cleaning.

What you would not do is walk away without a word, intending to write to them in a few weeks time.

Think how you would now feel as the diner sat wearing that glass of red if someone knocked over your drink and walked off without a word –  it’s just asking for a fight to start isn’t it?

So why do corporations act so differently? Is it that they don’t value their reputation? Is it that they just don’t care as long as they are making money?

I don’t think so. Strong influences are certainly the lawyers with their “Say nothing, admit nothing and it will all go away” approach (thankfully less common now than in the 1960s), but I believe there are more human forces at work.

Caught in the storm of a corporate crisis the behaviour of senior executives changes – shock, fear, confusion bear down on their thought processes making basic human responses (like apologising) difficult.

So 50 years on Gruenenthal say sorry – no doubt a difficult thing for Harald Stock, Gruenenthal’s chief executive to do – but it’s something which should have been said 50 years ago but was just too hard. Senior executives need to remember that whilst they are human, with all the weaknesses and frailties, so are the people their actions affect.

When you’re in a hole….

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MISS

The cancellation of the rugby match between Ireland and France at the weekend was a fine example of poor crisis communication, and like all crises the signs of an impending problem were there for all to see well in advance.

As the Daily Telegraph article today about this says, many people had questioned the wisdom of an evening kick off in February at a ground without under pitch heating, but the French Rugby authorities refused to change their plans.

Inevitably the problem came to a head just before kick off when the game was called off with just 10 minutes to go leaving fans feeling cheated and mislead.

But there was worse to follow. Having failed to plan ahead and assess the risks properly (the root of many a crisis), the French Rugby authorities then kept the world’s media waiting for a statement (with deadlines looming) before finally saying they would make no comment.

I wonder what the French for  “When you’re in a hole… stop digging” is?