This hasn’t been a good week for corporate reputations, with some of the usual suspect sectors in the spotlight. Banks, airlines, and the media haven’t enjoyed wonderful publicity in recent years and if you needed any reminders of why, the past few days served them up.
Last Wednesday, the BBC erroneously announced the death of the celebrated broadcaster Brian Matthew, before clarifying later that he was, in fact, critically ill.
Matthew, who had hosted Sounds of the 60s on Radio 2 for nearly 30 years, did sadly pass away on Saturday, aged 88. Earlier this year, he had been forced out – or willingly stood down, depending on whose version of events you believe – of the Radio 2 schedule after suffering an illness which left him unable to present the show for several weeks over the winter.
This week began with a bank hitting the headlines and, not for the first time, for all the wrong reasons. On Monday, it emerged that Barclays’s chief executive Jes Staley is under investigation by financial regulators for attempting to unmask an anonymous internal whistle-blower who had made allegations about a senior executive, Tim Main. Main happens to be a long-time associate of Staley and was brought in to Barclays by the CEO to help turn the bank around.
The same day, that powerful union of smartphones and social media networks combined to send viral a video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from one of its aeroplanes on a Chicago runway, when the airline chose to prioritise flying staff to Louisville rather than paying customers. The footage of the male passenger being manhandled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle by security staff is as incredible as it is shocking.
Three very different scenarios – and no doubt each with its own unseen complexities and mitigating factors – but all undoubtedly deserving of the “PR disaster” tag that was immediately affixed to them.
On Tuesday morning, Nick Robinson merrily opined that United “have a little bit of PR work to do now” after he had debated the merits of the airline’s “involuntary denial of boarding” policy with guests on BBC Radio 4’s Todayprogramme.
As a public relations professional who has, admittedly, had “a little bit of work to do” following various corporate mishaps and misbehaviour, my immediate observation was that the time and effort would have been more effectively invested before the horse had bolted, rather than as it galloped off into the distance leaving a huge trail of excrement in its wake.
Organisations really need to stop thinking of their communications teams as reactive functions that kick in to action when the chips are down or a nadir is reached. The best comms functions should be able to prevent companies hitting reputational rock-bottom by identifying threats and weaknesses in advance and not letting management rest until those ticking time-bombs are defused.
All organisations have inherent imperfections of policy and process. If you imagine a scale that ranges from “rotten” to “ideal”, many businesses appear to believe that if they operate closer to the latter end of the spectrum than the former most of the time, that is satisfactory.
However, on certain measures, nothing short of ideal should suffice and it shouldn’t take a PR professional to reject a policy as rotten as United Airlines’ “involuntary denial of boarding process”. Or to tell a chief executive that it is unacceptable to conduct a witch hunt for an employee who may have been acting in the company’s best interests by flagging malpractice.
Calling these things out is one thing. Having the courage and persistence to bring about wholesale policy change within an organisation requires a whole different level of commitment. Preventing PR disasters is significantly more productive than trying to fix them, and employees who identify bad practice and work tirelessly to eradicate it are as valuable as they are rare.
In the BBC’s case, it would appear that the premature reporting of Brian Matthew’s death was a simple – and, you might argue, forgivable – case of crossed wires. But the cornerstone of any corporate reputation is how well (or otherwise) an organisation undertakes its core business, and the BBC’s core business is to inform, so the damage to its reputation is inevitable.
Given that the corporation was already under fire for its handling of Matthew’s retirement earlier this year, I think it’s reasonable to expect that news of his death would have been treated with the utmost sensitivity, and for facts to be established beyond any doubt before any public announcements were made. If there are shortcomings in the process of gathering and validating information before it is broadcast, they need to be addressed.
Reputation is a long-term asset which organisations must insure and care for every single day, not just on the stormy days. By communicating consistently and clearly in the good times, and ensuring an organisational conscience not only exists, but is listened to and followed, companies will build strong foundations on which they can stand during the bad times.
Firefighters are unquestionably heroic, but the much maligned and ridiculed health and safety officer might just prevent the flames ever taking hold.
David Gaffney is an Associate Partner at Charlotte Street Partners. After seven years at Beattie Media, he moved to RBS, where he worked on media relations for the group’s corporate banking division, before joining the group media team in early 2011. In late 2013, David became Head of Communications for the RBS spin-off challenger bank, Williams & Glyn. David joined Charlotte Street Partners in January 2015 and is also the director of Scotland’s Total Warrior franchise.