Another day, another business leader with a lot more free time on his hands. Not long after KPMG’s UK chair Bill Michael departed having overshared his ‘wisdom’ on unconscious bias, UK food retailer Iceland fired its PR chief, Keith Hann.  

Hann’s (now deleted) Twitter account drew some fire after he commented on TV star Amanda Holden’s lockdown-breaking trip to Cornwall (‘your periodic reminder that the inhabitants of the UK’s Celtic fringe loathe all visitors’). And that led people to his blog, ‘Bloke in the North’ (now private), which revealed he had some previous form: an earlier comment about Welsh being “a dead language that sounds uncannily like someone with bad catarrh clearing his throat” came to light, amongst others in a similar vein. Iceland’s HQ is in Flintshire, Wales, and Hann had previously grumbled about his commute there from his home in Cheshire. That’s one thing he won’t have to worry about from now on.

“What should I do if it goes viral?”

On a recent writing course, a delegate asked what you should do if an email or a social media comment goes viral. It’s hard not to make one’s answer sound like the apocryphal advice given by a farmer responding to a request for directions from tourists lost in the countryside: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’. The problem is that once an unguarded and offensive comment is out there, it’s pretty much impossible to stop it circulating – and that’s as true of emails, texts and instant messages as it is of social media posts.

Iceland did what they could, issuing an apology for the comments. Hann himself told a reporter: “All of the tweets and press articles you have cited were written by me in a personal capacity and are not endorsed by Iceland Foods or reflective of the company’s views.” He added: “I would have hoped it was also obvious that all of these were written with humorous intent.” It wasn’t enough to save his job at the company.

3 things to remember

At Working Voices, our advice is all about what you do before you hit ‘send’, or before you decide to post anything, especially if what you’re writing about is remotely controversial. Having a series of checks in place will help you – and the following is all based on the sound counsel we pass on in our business writing courses.

1. Remember that there’s no such thing as a private message

if you’re using your company’s email/instant message servers or writing on social media. You have no control over who will end up reading anything you’ve written, so think hard before you send it out. Would you be happy to see your message on the front page of a newspaper, or broadcast online? Or for members of your family to read it? In an age when the boundaries between the private and the public seem increasingly blurred, and people seem ready to share everything, it’s worth keeping some of your thoughts to yourself.

2. Remember that humour doesn’t travel well online.

The problem with a lot of written communication is the absence of vocal tone: if we heard someone saying it, the argument goes, then we’d know whether they really meant it or not. Hence the popularity of emoticons and emojis, which introduce a tonal element into written communication, but which aren’t really appropriate if you’re trying to sound professional. And I doubt using them would have helped Keith Hann, as he was perhaps more focussed on making his readers chuckle. So it’s simpler – especially if you’re British, and prone to bouts of misinterpreted irony – to keep things cordial and tonally-light, but ‘humour’-free.

3. Remember to adopt a respectful tone at all times.

The events at Iceland aren’t a one-off. Despite repeated warnings, people are still losing their jobs because of ill-considered communication. Keith Hann’s comments weren’t just unfunny, they also showed massive disrespect to a nation, its people and its language. His thoughts and opinions are his own business, and he is of course absolutely entitled to have them. Broadcasting them is another matter, and you’d have thought that a PR expert would be slightly more aware of that.

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