What has gone wrong with the ability of big British organisations to anticipate potential crises and respond effectively? From the BBC and NatWest/Coutts to the package holiday companies, continuing to send people out to Rhodes even as forest fires intensified and hotels put up their shutters, their media responses have been lamentable. With all of these, there were plenty of early warning signs, which should have given time to prepare. At the BBC, concerns about the newsroom behaviour of its biggest-name news presenter Huw Edwards had been circulating for some time, even before The Sun brought the issue to the fore – indeed the main Newsnight presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, had been carrying out her own investigations for a possible on-air report. This was a huge reputational issue for the Corporation, but it appeared to be burying its head in the sand, hoping it would go away – why was the internal investigation so tardy, with apparently no media response plan ready to go?
Similarly, when the BBC was given the wrong steer by NatWest CEO Dame Alison Rose about why Brexit politician Nigel Farage had his account cancelled by Coutts, it allowed its critics a field day before belatedly giving a proper apology. Dame Alison has now been forced to resign over this, and NatWest’s overall policy of ‘de-banking’ people whose political views it doesn’t like, a controversy which has been going on for weeks if not months. The bank’s ‘reputational risk committee’ apparently decided it was a risk to its reputation to keep Mr Farage on as a customer – this must be one of the worst such judgements in history, given the reputational hit from booting him out. Again instead of getting on the front foot the bank’s apology was mealy-mouthed and slow. As for the holiday companies, there have been continued warnings about the fire risk from the current record temperatures in Greece and other parts of southern Europe. Why did they not have plenty of well-trained spokespeople ready to explain what steps they were taking in case of emergency, and give better advice for those preparing to travel?
Here is our 5 point plan for companies with ‘issues’ bubbling under the surface – these steps should be obvious but apparently haven’t been in the above cases:
1. Keep the corporate eyes and ears open for issues that could pose a reputational threat. Newsroom complaints about the behaviour of a high-profile BBC presenter? An increasing volume of media concern about individuals having banking facilities withdrawn for no obvious reason? Suggestions of widespread sexual harassment at McDonalds UK? (The company response here was actually pretty swift and effective, which is why the fuss surrounding it has somewhat died down). Don’t let the exec committee bury its collective head in the sand.
2. If possible, do something about it. Take action to show you have recognised the issue, and strengthened/adapted your policies as appropriate.
3. You may hope the issue may never reach the public domain, but what if it does? Work out how you would deal with potential criticisms, and demonstrate the action you are taking.
4. Don’t dissemble or try to mislead the media as to the true situation (Coutts). This will naturally make things far worse when the truth inevitably comes out. Honesty usually wins you brownie points.
5. Have well-trained bosses or spokespeople ready to deal with tough questions!
More on our crisis media training