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October 20, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:41am

How to be Richard Branson not Fred Goodwin when dealing with the media

By Chris Blackhurst

Former Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has dealt with corporate disaster both as a journalist, covering it, and has given crisis PR advice. Here he shares his insight into how companies should deal with the media when things go wrong.

It’s a question I’m sometimes asked, as someone who has worked in journalism as editor, reporter, columnist and in PR as a consultant dispensing crisis and reputational advice. Why do some companies and their bosses emerge relatively unscathed from a drama, while others see their reputations damaged, possibly beyond repair?

First, the firms and their chiefs that do better are invariably those who have gone out of their way to court journalists in the past. They made friends in the media on the way up and those friends will view them more favourably now they’ve hit trouble. Those without pals in the media will suffer.

A classic example here is Sir Fred Goodwin and Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank’s woes in 2008 became an excuse for reporters, who had experienced Goodwin’s disregard for the press, to turn on its chief executive, to kick him, to push him and the company further under. Read the coverage and you will find scarcely a good word about him.

Those that enjoy an easy rapport with the media, who are as open as they’re able, will always fare more easily. The stark contrast with someone like Goodwin is Sir Richard Branson. The Virgin king has suffered fatal accidents involving his trains and space project, but there was no lasting harm to him or his empire.

Branson does what comes naturally to him. This means being seen to lead the response, going straight to the incident and fronting the media himself. He does not hide behind barriers of PR advisers; he displays personal empathy. If there’s any one ingredient crucial to surviving a crisis as unscathed as possible it is the latter.

Look at BP chief Tony Hayward. He was charged with handling the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe of 20 April 2010, when a rig leased to BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and causing the worst oil spill in US history. Initially, Hayward did the right things. He travelled to the area; he stayed there and led from the front, fielding the calls and press conferences. It was exhausting work and intense – the level of US media interest in the disaster, because of the deaths and the environmental fallout, not to mention the prospect of huge litigation, was unrelenting. Matters were not helped by the fact that BP was a Brit company, seen in many American eyes as aloof and distant.

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Then Hayward slipped. He was a geologist and technically minded. On 18 May, he told Sky News: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” This was before the oil reached the Gulf shore. Thereafter, he and his colleagues were challenged repeatedly on the “very, very modest” claim, as fisheries, wildlife and beaches were destroyed.

In an interview with the Guardian  Hayward said: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

It was an accurate statement, but the ruptured pipe was spewing up to 19,000 barrels of oil a day until it was plugged. Small, relative to the size of the ocean, but with a colossal bearing on the region’s ecology and economy. To make it worse, the Guardian quote was shortened when it was repeated in the press, so that Hayward referred only to the spill as “tiny”.

Shortly after making the comment to the Guardian, a frustrated Hayward told a reporter, “we’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There is no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

Unfortunately, as was immediately pointed out, the 11 dead workers, their families and friends, could not get theirs back. He apologised. “I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment,” Hayward said. “I apologise, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy.”

Added Hayward: “My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families – to restore their lives, not mine.”

No amount of excusing and handwringing could undo the damage: the following month BP announced Hayward was leaving the company and he would be replaced by an American, Bob Dudley.

I was brought in to assist a travel company over a tragedy at a hotel on one of their package holidays. It had happened years before, but the fallout rumbled on. The firm believed it wasn’t liable and accused the hotel management of negligence.

This blame game, I concluded, was for the lawyers. In the meantime, had the operator ever met the families of the bereaved? No, they had not. Meet them, I said, show you understand, share their grief and anger. The lawyers were appalled, worried in case there was an acceptance of fault. You don’t need to say “sorry”, I insisted, but state how upset everyone is at the company, how you will help in any way, and how you’re determined to get to the bottom of what went wrong.

The travel CEO did see them, and immediately, a cloud was lifted. And from then on, the press could never state, and the families could not complain to the press, that the company had not contacted them.

Crisis PR advice: Don’t jump to conclusions

On the morning of the Paddington train crash in 1999, which left 31 people dead and 417 injured, I took a call as a journalist from a PR. He was with a large corporate agency advising the railway operator.

Two trains had collided only a few hours previously. It looks like human error, said the PR. It appears as if the driver of the local train ignored the red signal and went headfirst into the express service. Surely, I said, it’s too early to know that? He replied that they were “fairly certain” human error was the cause.

I ignored his information, which was just as well. The official inquiry later found that because of the bad siting of the signal the driver’s vision was obscured by bright, low sunlight. He had no chance and perished.

On another occasion, in PR, I was working with an aviation manufacturing boss. There’d been an accident involving one of his aircraft. It was “pilot error”, he said, in an uncanny repetition of what I’d heard regarding Paddington. He was keen to tell the world so. Don’t say that I said. Not unless you absolutely know – and you can’t possibly – not yet. “But all the indicators suggest the pilot made a mistake,” he spluttered. No, I said, express condolence, say the company will help fully with the investigation, but do not even so much as hint at a possible cause.

In the end, it turned out that poor maintenance leading to a rusting part that snapped was to blame. Not the pilot, in other words.

I was advising a major restaurant owner. Sadly, someone had died, caused it was alleged by a bad reaction to one of their meals. The CEO wanted to say that thousands of its meals were sold every week without incident. No. Something might have gone wrong on this occasion – and it was this occasion that was occupying minds.

To point to anything else smacked of an attempt to divert, to absolve culpability. Worse, a crisis, particularly one involving death and injury, should not risk being viewed as an advert for a business to say how successful it is.

It’s a mystery to me why, even now, after all their trials and tribulations, leaders of the likes of the Metropolitan Police still read from scripts. It’s a terrible look: their eyes are down, not facing the cameras; their delivery is stilting; the words come across as written by uncaring automatons. Why Cressida Dick, why does someone as intelligent and presumably as sensitive and caring as you, allow this to happen?

People make mistakes. Often, we’re prepared to forgive a lapse, provided those in charge are seen to be doing the decent thing, by behaving thoughtfully and responsibly. We’re all human beings, even journalists, even those in PR. Be human, put yourself in the place of those affected, think how you’re being seen, how you’re being judged, how what you’re saying will be received. Be human, it’s the best piece of advice I can give.

Read more of Chris Blackhurst’s columns for Press Gazette here.

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