Come on PR sixth sense. Evolve already!

Human evolution has yet to catch up with the modern-day scrutiny that the 24/7, ‘always on’, 360-degree, multi-channel world of media affords.  Simply put, our instinct not to do, or say, the wrong thing remains notably absent.

Which isn’t to excuse not thinking things through and sticking to a few basic rules when things do go wrong: apologise early, don’t blame, know what people who work for you are doing, understand that other people may think differently to you…

And so on.

With Birchwood Knight celebrating its tenth birthday this year, we thought we’d have a look across the last decade and pick out those moments – some tragic, some sad, some comic, some just very bizarre – that offer a pause for thought. Here they are:

2009 – No better place to start than with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, itself a company with a long reputation of excess that typified the much-vilified banking culture, who claimed he was, ‘…doing God’s work’ in a Times interview.

2010 – Deepwater Horizon, a Transocean drilling rig leased by BP, exploded killing 11 people as well as wrecking the environment and many businesses in the Gulf of Mexico. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, played the British villain to a tee when he said, ‘I want my life back.’  Current CEO, Bob Dudley, took over shortly thereafter.  Subsequent investigations raised questions about BP’s management priorities and incentives at the time.

2011 – In a shocking live mic moment, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy transmitted their feelings about Benjamin Netanyahu to waiting journalists.  Sarkozy: ‘I cannot stand him, he is a liar.’ Obama: ‘You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day.’  Old adage: assume every mic and camera is on.

2012 – Being social media savvy is one thing but just applying common-sense is another. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down, The Gap tweeted, ‘All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe!  We’ll be doing lots of shopping today.  How about you?’ Unbelievable!

2013 – Not technically from 2013 but re-surfacing after seven years, a demonstration that when you’re a CEO, nothing you say is ever forgotten! To add to his long time mis-management of Abercrombie & Fitch, and in response to a question about why there were no clothing sizes over a size 10 in his stores, Mike Jeffries responded, “Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people, we don’t market to anyone other than that.”

2014 – Getting your facts right is important! Delta Airlines used the image of a giraffe to celebrate USA’s 2-1 soccer victory over Ghana in 2014. There are no giraffes in Ghana!

2015 – While others just seem to get away with outrageous casual racism, ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’ Who?  Donald Trump at his announcement speech.

2016 – Following the opposite of a crisis management rule book, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf placed the blame for the creation of two million fake customer accounts on 5,300 employees. In the process of shouldering none of the blame himself, he laid firm foundations for a crisis that still refuses to die.

2017 – United Airlines’ response to its own treatment of David Dao, a passenger who was forcibly removed from a UA flight to make room for UA employees, is one for the records. Reputationally and financially damaging. Now passed into legend.

2018 – Another live mic moment but this one in rather different circumstances. Mike Coupe, waiting to discuss Sainsbury’s £12 billion merger with Asda (and explain why there was public, as well as commercial advantage to the deal) was heard to be singing ‘we’re in the money’.

2019 – Spoiled for choice in 2019, and I know he’s made the list already, but Donald Trump referring to Tim Cook as ‘Tim Apple’ could just have been a simple, even charming, error. However, the crisis management that followed was anything but, pouring fuel and igniting the fire all on its own.  And Tim joined in the fun too…

There are a few common themes here. But the simple starting point is: try and do or say the right thing in the first place. Why? Because it’s always going to be easier to keep the genie in the bottle rather than crisis manage once it’s out.

Wayne Reynolds, Founder and Managing Director, Birchwood Knight


11th December 2019

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