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Window Dressing vs. Soul Searching

As a leader, how do you stop a PR emergency from being a witch-hunt?

Until recently, not many people had heard of Sir Roger Scruton, a conservative Cambridge philosopher. And virtually no-one knew, or cared, that he had an advisory position with the UK government on buildings. But in recent weeks he’s been on a bit of a journey.

Scruton agreed to an interview with the Deputy Editor of The New Statesman, which is a left-leaning periodical. Within hours of the interview’s publication there were calls for Scruton to be fired from his government committee role. Some of those calls came from Conservative MPs he might have expected to leap to his defence, rather than condemn.  One declared that instant dismissal was a ‘no brainer’ adding ‘Let’s not take our time on this’. Scruton was indeed fired, on the grounds that he had expressed views that appeared racist and homophobic.

Unfortunately for those who had been quick to judge, the interviewer then posted a photo of himself swinging a bottle of champagne and celebrating his own role in Scruton’s dismissal: ‘The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government advisor.’ He soon deleted it and apologised, but the credibility of the article was called into question. When rival magazine The Spectator obtained the full interview text, there were claims that Scruton’s words were deliberately taken out of context and the whole thing was a hit-job.

Some commentators still believe that Scruton’s dismissal was justified. However, the amount of controversy it has generated indicates that the decision was not a ‘no brainer’. There were legitimate questions to be asked first about the motivations and journalistic practice of the interviewer. Scruton’s side of the story should have been heard. The worst thing for the government decision-makers is that nothing Scruton said was significantly different from other views he has expressed over the years. Take this example from 2014’s How To Be A Conservative: ‘Once we distinguish race and culture, the way is open to acknowledge that not all cultures are equally admirable, and that not all cultures can exist comfortably side-by-side.’

It’s not as if the UK government hasn’t been here before. It’s only a year since another Conservative commentator, Toby Young, was asked to advise the UK government and then quickly left under a cloud. Some of the behaviour that led to Young’s resignation was indefensible (and he accepted this) but all of it was in the public domain long before he took up the position. So if it was OK then, why was it not OK later, when a micro-scandal blew up on social media?

In the modern media environment, there is huge pressure to act quickly when something like this happens. Stories build online. As the number of shares rises and the comments multiply, it’s someone’s job to try to limit the damage to the organisation that employs the person in the line of fire. They need to stop the story trending, and to dissociate the organisation from the negative publicity. The most direct way out of the crisis is to publicly sever any connection to the person: fire them, repudiate them – throw them under a bus, as the saying goes. The problem with this approach is that the main concern of the government, and many other organisations that quickly fire anyone under online attack, appears to be image, not ethics. Fairness is sacrificed to PR.

It’s ironic that by turning on the transgressor and cutting them loose, the company distances itself from blame as this takes away the need for any real reflection on how the situation arose.  After the sackings, what happens in the organisational culture that gave rise to the problem? And who reviews the process of the original appointment?

It’s worth looking at what Starbucks did when a video went viral of two young black men being led out of a store in handcuffs because they’d been sitting there without ordering a drink. Rather than vilify the manager or blame the police, the company closed 8,000 stores for a few hours the following month for racial bias training. They admitted that this on its own would not solve the problem, but at least they recognised that a system-wide solution was the only kind of response that showed a sincere desire to do right by African-Americans, rather than merely avoid accusations of racism sticking to the company.

It’s not just at CEO or board level that enlightened thinking is needed. If there is an accusation or a foul-up around you, your first thoughts might well turn to self-protection. That’s understandable but it’s not right to distance yourself from someone you lead because they suddenly look bad, especially if you hadn’t previously thought there was anything wrong in what they were doing. And ethics aside, there are sound business reasons to avoid a knee-jerk response: you could lose talent because you aren’t brave enough to back people in a storm. And even if you don’t consider the person leaving to be a great loss, what message are you sending to the rest of the team, who may be able to picture themselves on the end of the same treatment in future?

The question is, how do you get the balance right? You could end up letting a PR disaster swamp you if you hesitate. And you could end up making ill-informed panic decisions if you jump too soon. Well, take a tip from a top corporate PR expert that I spoke to. The steps he advises major corporations to take are:

  1. Say you will be making a statement/decision soon, though not yet.
  2. Say you take the problem seriously – and why. Use the opportunity to state your values.
  3. Say you want to look into it both quickly and thoroughly.
  4. Remember you’ve only bought yourself a little bit of time. The clock is ticking.

This might sound obvious but it’s crucially different in emphasis. Instead of making hasty decisions to demonstrate a zero-tolerance attitude to inappropriate behaviour or poor performance, you demonstrate your seriousness by giving yourself adequate time.  It’s only the communication that has to be superfast; getting a message out quickly helps you look decisive and transparent. But that speedy response doesn’t need to be your definitive judgement.

And if you want this to be anything more than a PR exercise, think about how you got here in the first place. Why weren’t you, the leader, the one to see the problem coming? What could be done differently so you don’t end up in the same position again in a year’s time, like the British government?

Written by Andy Day.

Andrew is a successful writer, speaker & educator. He has presented his work in many varied contexts & countries: from small towns in Poland, to international schools in Singapore, to global banks in NY. Andy’s flexibility and ability to adapt his style to suit any audiences are just part of what makes him a great trainer. Andy specialises in bringing specialist ideas to non-specialist audiences, he is passionate about introducing people to new ideas & exploring the applications for their own lives. 

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