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Sports Direct: Mike Ashley forced into the spotlight

Nine years ago, Sports Direct was crowned the ‘least ethical’ big firm in the UK.

Yesterday, a spotlight of infamy again shines on founder, Mike Ashley, who has faced MPs investigating working practices at the firm’s Derbyshire warehouse after a series of allegations.

Clearly, there are a number of ethical dilemmas being put on the table as part of the investigation but from a communications point of view, an added dimension is that Ashley, the owner, has become the spokesperson for the company – not always the first choice for a communications team (even with your ‘PR advisor’ by your side).

Chris Gidez and Mike Lawrence put arguments forward on both sides in the debate as to whether a CEO should be a company’s primary spokesperson during a crisis.

Lawrence argues that “a company executive one or two positions below [should act] as a primary spokesperson. This official should be an executive team member [and] have direct knowledge of what’s under way to mitigate the crisis”. As Ashley himself commented, when discussing an independent investigation in to working practices: “You will find things out that I obviously don’t know are happening.”

However, this wasn’t a planned media interview.  There was no choice on the part of Sports Direct as to who should be sat in front of the MPs and, by default, the public. And this is where preparation and crisis training become so important.

As Gidez points out: “a crisis is not the time to test whether the CEO is up to the task. Advance preparation is critical”.  That critical preparation isn’t just about how to speak to a journalist behind a camera, it’s about maintaining composure under pressure, feeling confident about the facts and understanding that you are the “voice of reassurance and trust”.

Aside from the legalities and intricacies of public inquiries and parliamentary investigations, the added ‘bonus’ of media reporting means that owners, CEOs and any other key business leaders need to be fully prepared to play the role of public spokesperson, should they ever find themselves in Ashley’s position.

The fallout from the ongoing investigation and its impact on Sports Direct in the long term will be unravelled over time.

One thing we can be reminded of though, is that without good speculative crisis preparation at board level, a company’s reputation could take an even bigger hit if forced into the spotlight.

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