Public and Private Do Not Apply In Reputation Management

The idea that a neat line can be drawn between public and private has come to an end.  Most organisations and individuals in the public eye realise that everything they say is ripe for comment and media coverage.  However, not all of them appreciate that this is not just limited to comments made in public but seemingly ‘private’ conversations, emails, letters etc as well.

Two recent examples show this in stark clarity.

Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive of the Premier League, had his ‘private’ emails splashed across the newspaper.  The coverage highlighted his deeply inappropriate comments about women and there were widespread calls for him to be sacked.  The Premier League found itself at the centre of the storm which was not relieved when it was decided to keep Scudamore on.

The content of Scudamore’s emails drew comments from a range of organisations and even the Prime Minister took time to comment that they were ‘unacceptable’.  There has been obvious reputational damage for the Premier League.  As the Evening Standard said ‘Scudamore so lucky to keep his job as football cannot afford to alienate women’.

Another recent example saw Prince Charles make a private comment regarding Vladimir Putin which has subsequently featured on front pages across the world.  Clarence House said ‘we don’t comment on private conversations’ but are any such conversations truly private?  Not just thinking about a still microphoned Gordon Brown complaining about that ‘bigoted woman’ or a winking Australian Prime Minister during a live phone-in.

So leaders of any organisations need to be fundamentally aware that what they say, write and do is liable to be made public.  They have to ask themselves what reputational damage could be inflicted on the brand as well as thinking about whatever personal implications there may be.

There are a range of other outlets as well.  Twitter may offer the prospect of genuine interaction and dialogue but ‘tweet in haste, repent at leisure’.  There are an ever growing number of examples of inappropriate, embarrassing, inaccurate and libellous tweets being made.

In the case of Scudamore, the legal friend he was emailing has too been featured in the media, investigated by his firm and has issued an apology.

According to Rani Abraham who leaked the emails, ‘I wanted to talk to the HR department but felt that if I did it would be covered up’.  She also told the Guardian that emails contained references to female colleagues and being sent from his work email address meant that she could see them all

This shows that organisations have to have robust processes in place so that reports can be made.  In particular, staff also must have confidence in them as well as the independence of the people policing them.

The alternative which some may choose is to use a whistleblower app or to approach the media.  Neither of these provide any legal protection for the individual.

If you have whistleblowing processes in place then they have to be effective.  The only thing worse than not having them is having them but not utilising them effectively.  Any hint of a cover-up makes for even worse reputational damage and staff retention and morale will be hit.

So reputation management also involves the very way in which an organisation is run and operates.  It’s about systems and processes and the belief that staff have in them.

There is no such thing as public and private as far as reputations are concerned, it is just one overall effort to develop and protect them.

So check your employment policies and practices, and social media and crisis management plans, they are all part of the same effort to protect reputations.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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