Achilles Heal – furniture boss breaks golden rules of crisis comms

By Anthony Longden.

What price reputation? In the case of Heal’s, the long-established Tottenham Court Road furniture store: £2,100.

That was the price of a sofa purchased by ‘NL’, who emailed Daily Telegraph consumer champion Katie Morley after having had a protracted and highly unsatisfactory battle with the store.

The tale of woe had all the right ingredients for a solid consumer story: a moderately expensive piece of furniture, delivery promised in time for Christmas, arrives in mid-January only to develop strange marking on the fabric and sagging cushions.

An independent report commissioned by the owners identified nine faults and condemned the seat as ‘unfit for purpose’. Its disappointed owners, having got nowhere with their complaint, decided to take Heal’s to court. The matter was referred to the Furniture Ombudsman, which flatly contradicted the report and ruled that the sofa had no manufacturing defects.

In despair, the owners turned to the Daily Telegraph. Scenting a good yarn, its consumer champion Katie Morley followed up on the story.

That should have set warning klaxons sounding at Heal’s.

Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The old saying: ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’ applies here. The furniture business is highly competitive. Heal’s has been in it a long time, and must surely have dealt with problems like this many times before. Quite why it decided to die in a ditch over this particular issue remains unclear.

With the matter picked up by an award-winning a consumer journalist, and in light of a highly damaging independent report on the sofa, the most sensible response would have been to acknowledge that Heal’s had not lived up to its normally high standards, and that it would be investigating the matter further. It could also have written off the £2,100 – surely a modest amount for a business of this size and high profile.

Instead, Heal’s CEO, Hamish Mansbridge, entered the fray (specifically, the below-the-line comments on the article) with an ill-judged, 300-word attack on what he saw as “sensationalist and inaccurate reporting… [which is] extremely damaging and potentially defamatory” by  Morley, who has won back more than £2m on behalf of her readers.

Mansbridge’s combative response broke a string of golden rules:

– The CEO should not be drawn into a public spat with either customers or journalists – it’s better to remain above the battle in case a calming statement is required later. Leave the initial response to another senior figure or the comms department.

– Accusing journalists of sensationalism and defamation never plays well, and only serves to make you look tone deaf and bullying. Not a great look for a lifestyle brand which is all about making people feel good about themselves.

– This is a David and Goliath situation. And if you happen to be Goliath trying to play the victim simply doesn’t work.

– The response was over-long and rather aggressive – there are few more effective ways of frightening off potential customers who will naturally think: “If that’s how they respond when something’s wrong, I think I’ll go elsewhere.”

Morley posted a civil, professional response to Mansbridge. And unsurprisingly, his intervention only drew further attention to the story, with the result the piece went on to attract more than 360 comments (and counting), almost exclusively highly critical of Heal’s.

Whatever the detail, when it comes to this kind of story discretion is always the better part of valour. Empathise, accommodate and neutralise.

Anthony Longden is a Specialist Partner at crisis communications specialist Alder Media.

Image of Achilles courtesy of Gren12345

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