Reputation during a crisis

The current world crisis has brought the behaviour of companies into the spotlight.

There are good and bad examples but the key lesson is that decisions made during the coronavirus outbreak will impact on an organisation’s reputation well beyond the end of it.

There have been some good blogs written about the communications aspects of the outbreak some of which have focused on reputation as well. Alastair Campbell’s guide to crisis communications is a stand out and I agree with Jenna Keighley that a reputational reckoning is coming.

We can already see examples of this and, critically from a public affairs perspective, politicians are taking notice and getting involved. The actions of organisations are seemingly generating poor relations that will follow them beyond the crisis.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

  • Sports Direct – their decision to try to argue that they were an ‘essential’ retailer went down really badly and government ministers said as much in the media. There were then queries over whether they were going to pay their staff and stories about some own brand products being doubled in price.
  • JD Wetherspoon – initially announced that its 40,000 staff would not be paid until it had been reimbursed by the government under its business support scheme. After receiving a letter signed by nearly 100 MPs, the company reversed its position. Whether those in its supply chain will be paid is, according the media, still unclear.

The BEIS Select Committee has written to both Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, and Tim Martin, the Chairman of Wetherspoons, calling on them to explain what they are doing to support their employees.

Both companies were named and challenged during Prime Ministers Question Time. The political spotlight is without doubt on them.

This has led Ashley to issue an open letter of ‘apology’ but in a classic non-apology way, it says:

‘I thought it was necessary to address and apologise for much of what has been reported across various media outlets regarding my personal actions and those of the Frasers Group business.’

‘I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future.’

So the letter is unclear about whether the company is really sorry for what it has done or simply the way in which the media has carried the story. The letter was though enough for the BBC online to lead with the headline:

Coronavirus: Mike Ashley ‘deeply apologetic’ for blunders

But to these examples you can add Elon Musk’s tweets, a TikTok video including the Chief Executive of Harrods and even, early on in the outbreak, the Snapchat video posted by the footballer, Dele Alli. In his case there appeared to be an immediate appreciation of the damage he had inflicted on himself and his club, Tottenham Hotspur. The video seemed to mock an Asian man and make light of the coronavirus. The video was removed and Alli issued an apology on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

In the case of Ashley and Martin, they are both high-profile and especially in Ashley’s case this is not his first run in with parliament. Martin was unafraid to voice his support for Brexit both before and after the referendum and that seems to have made him both friends and enemies.

Actions followed during the current crisis will likely stay with any organisation so that has to be considered in all their actions now.

Business may be ‘on hold’ for a time but reputation management is not.

Photo by Greg Willson on Unsplash

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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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