2022 will forever be remembered as the year of three Prime Ministers, two monarchs and a cost-of-living crisis. Keeping sane amidst the turmoil was hard enough for most of us; keeping their reputation intact proved harder still for others. Director of Reputation Tim Jotischky takes a wry look at ten of this year’s reputation management disasters:
Of all the corporate own goals in 2022, this one was right up there – Center Parcs informed guests at its five sites that they would have to leave for 24 hours on the day of the Queen’s funeral, even if they were in the middle of a holiday, to allow its employees “to be part of this historic moment”. How its leaders arrived at this decision in the first place is a mystery – government guidance did not require businesses to observe national mourning – but it was their painfully slow reaction to the inevitable social media storm that compounded the original error. Eventually, Center Parcs performed a last-minute U-turn, but taking so long and doing it with such bad grace meant there was no upside. Were their PR advisors ignored or asleep on the job?
For sheer brazen chutzpah, P & O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite took the biscuit in 2022. Having laid off 800 staff by video message to replace them with cheaper agency workers – some crew members were marched off ferries by balaclava-clad security staff – he breezily admitted to a Commons select committee that he had broken the law by not consulting staff unions and doubled down on the decision. There was predictable public and political outrage. Hebblethwaite might have decided it was a price worth paying to act quickly and decisively, but the fact that P&O Cruises felt compelled to take out adverts in national newspapers to distance themselves from their disgraced namesake, assuring customers there was no connection between the two, tells its own story of how much of a reputation management disaster this was.
Spending an estimated £200bn bought Qatar a place on the world stage, but did ‘sports washing’ enhance the state’s reputation? Appointing David Beckham as their World Cup ambassador didn’t make those tricky questions about corruption, the deaths of migrant workers and the absence of LGBTQ+ rights go away. The over-zealous clampdown on the ‘One Love’ armband symbolised everything that critics had warned about. The football was great, but it was the Imitation Games, not the real thing, and few were taken in, apart from FIFA’s increasingly ludicrous president Gianni Infantino, whose bizarre “Today I feel ginger” rant did no favours either to the World Cup organisers or football’s governing body.
When the Duke of York (as he then was) reached a civil settlement with his accuser Virginia Giuffre over sexual assault allegations he was presumably encouraged to believe it presaged his return to public life. If so, his advisors misled him. Within days his military titles and royal patronages had been returned to Buckingham Palace. Prince Andrew is now a pariah, a man with no discernible role or employment prospects. It all started with the disastrous Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis – surely one of the most disastrously misconceived projects ever conducted and an object lesson in the perils of failing to prepare for a media interview. The only solution now for Prince Andrew is to devote himself to a lifetime of good works and public service, like disgraced politician John Profumo two generations ago, but does he have the humility to even remotely rehabilitate his reputation?
Rebekah Vardy vs Coleen Rooney at the High Court was one of the most entertaining , yet utterly pointless, legal cases of the year. In fact, it was so riveting that it has now been turned into a Channel 4 drama. Vardy not only lost her libel case, ending up with legal costs of around £3m, but also succeeded in trashing her own reputation in the process. The judge concluded that “significant parts” of her evidence were not credible and “was manifestly inconsistent with the contemporaneous documentary evidence, evasive or implausible”. The lesson is: listen to your advisors, they have your best interests at heart. No self-respecting lawyer or reputation expert would have advised Vardy to pursue a vanity case that she was always doomed to lose.
As an act of political self-harm, it was without precedent. Kwarteng announced a raft of unfunded tax cuts, which crashed the pound and led to the near collapse of pension funds, a £65bn Bank of England bailout and soaring mortgage costs. He was sacked as Chancellor 38 days into the job; Prime Minister Liz Truss followed shorty afterwards. Later, Kwarteng admitted he had “got carried away”. From a political perspective, the mistake was not getting a grown-up to mark their homework. From a communications perspective, it was not understanding key audiences; the financial markets don’t like surprises. Pulling a rabbit out of the hat on Budget day – cutting the top-rate of income tax, for instance – might have seemed like clever comms, but only in a parallel universe occupied by right-wing columnists and think tank wonks.
He lost the Conservative Whip, he lost the last vestiges of his dignity and ultimately he lost his political career. The former Health Secretary insisted he wanted to find a new way to communicate with different audiences, but was it really necessary to eat kangaroo testicles to do it? Either he didn’t consider the optics of abandoning his constituents in the middle of a Parliamentary session to join a reality TV show or he didn’t care. Matt Hancock probably fancies himself as the new Michael Portillo: pundit, presenter and accomplished broadcaster. But when Portillo, once the enfant terrible of right-wing politics, swapped a career in politics for TV he successfully changed the way people perceived him; with Hancock, the danger is he merely confirmed perceptions. And few of them are flattering.
When German sportwear company adidas signed the artist formerly known as Kanye West as an ambassador they might have been hoping some of his edgy appeal would rub off on their brand, which often plays second fiddle to rival Nike. But a series of offensive, anti-semitic comments cost the rapper his job and reminded consumers of the company’s less than illustrious past when its factories produced supplies and weapons for the Nazi regime. Adidas said the decision would cost them up more than £200m, with production of Yeezy products stopping immediately. The cost to its reputation was less than clear, but for any brand it is a reminder that sometimes it doesn’t pay to try too hard. Adidas could have parted company with Ye after ill-judged comments about slavery and COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, they stuck with him and were left with much greater self-inflicted damage.
With their six-part Netflix series, Harry and Megan could finally present “their truth”, bypassing the dastardly mainstream media. But a one-sided documentary, complete with misleading TV footage, multiple inaccuracies and an absence of credible commentators did nothing to burnish their reputation. Hostility from commentators and pundits in the UK was predictable, but more worrying for Brand Megxit was the reaction of many in the US, who criticised the series as an extended whinge fest. In 2023, the Duke of Sussex will double down with the publication of Spare, presumed to be a very unsparing memoir of his life in The Firm. Then comes the will-they-won’t-they drama around the King’s coronation. But the couple will rapidly need to find a new shtick to keep the show on the road and refresh their brand.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was one of the longest running soap operas of the year. He finally bought the social media platform in October 2022. Then he went on a firing frenzy. Then he asked his followers to vote on whether he should stay on as CEO. They told him he shouldn’t. Enough said.