2023 was a tumultuous year with PR disasters aplenty. As we began a new Carolean era, the global economy remained in the deep freeze; a new conflict exploded in the Middle East; the emergence of AI promised revolutionary change; and climate change became our new reality.
The BBC and its presenters
This was a year when the BBC found itself consistently embarrassed by its presenters and struggled to handle the fall-out from a series of missteps.
The most complex of them was the Huw Edwards affair, following anonymised reports in The Sun about his personal conduct. The BBC initially failed to collate, evaluate and escalate information – the first rule of crisis management – and was playing catch-up thereafter. Ultimately, it was Edwards’ own wife who revealed his identity, sparing the BBC a difficult decision, but the fate of the broadcaster remains a tricky item in the 2024 in-tray.
Troubling questions were also raised about the conduct of Russell Brand while he was a Radio 2 presenter, leaving the impression that the BBC was too willing to indulge its star talent and failed to enforce disciplinary standards that apply to the rest of the organisation.
The biggest own goal was its mishandling of Gary Lineker’s Tweets, which led to the temporary shutdown of its sporting output. Slow to react, the BBC’s leadership appeared wrong-footed and took too long to get a grip. A new social media code of conduct was drafted, but Lineker continues to push the boundaries and the impression remains that he is exempt from the rules that others follow. That is not a good look for any organisation.
Alison Rose, a much-admired CEO and City titan, was forced to resign after three decades at the bank – a notable scalp for I’m A Celebrity star and one-time politician, Nigel Farage. Rose admitted a “serious error of judgement” in briefing a BBC journalist that Coutts had closed Farage’s account for commercial reasons and not because of his political views.
Farage went on the offensive and fought a typically full-blooded PR campaign, which put NatWest on the back foot and led to Rose eventually being forced out.
The optics were terrible. NatWest chair Howard Davies said Rose retained the board’s confidence, but ultimately, she resigned in the early hours of the morning after last-ditch attempts to shore up her position failed. The bank’s share price nosedived when the markets opened.
There were two key lessons for all institutions and business leaders. First, beware the power of the subject access request – that was how Farage skewered NatWest. Secondly, no conversation with a journalist is ever off limits, whether it’s at a charity dinner or in a formal interview setting.
This year AI has dominated conversation from the pub to parliament. In November, OpenAI, the firm behind ChatGPT, managed to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons: in-fighting and a very mismanaged ‘coup’ of sorts.
The chaos began with the board ousting CEO Sam Altman – causing uproar among the 700 staff who threatened to walk out, demanding the resignation of the board if Altman wasn’t re-instated.
If you ask ChatGPT about succession planning it gives you three essential phases: Swift and Transparent Communication, Craft a Positive Narrative, and Engage Stakeholders and Manage Expectations.
Any opportunity to convey security and vision and take the opportunity to reset the future outlook was missed. As a result of the backlash there was ultimately a last-minute U-turn, some crucial board changes and Sam Altman returned to his CEO role.
Ironically, the student became the master when it came to the succession comms at OpenAI: Chat GPT – 1, OpenAI – 0
Harry and Meghan
Ironically, despite calling on the services of a coterie of PR advisors it has not been a good year for the couple, who have often been outflanked by the Buckingham Palace machine. And the harder they tried, the worse it got.
The publication of Harry’s memoir Spare was predictably divisive, but he probably didn’t imagine it would lead so quickly to ridicule, encapsulated by South Park’s depiction of the couple’s “Worldwide Privacy Tour” and an unimpressed Spotify executive’s characterisation of them as “f***ing grifters”. The low point was claims of an alleged 80mph car chase by paparazzi through rush hour Manhattan, which stretched credulity and were swiftly debunked.
Recent reports suggest Hollywood has fallen out of love with the couple, unconvinced there is substance to match the style. Omid Scobie’s latest book Endgame did them no favours, despite efforts to disassociate them from its contents. It is hard for a brand to survive if it is perceived to be a one-trick pony, however slick the PR. In 2024, Harry and Meghan need to find a new narrative that does not rely on their status as royal exiles.
Manchester United eventually offloaded their shamed striker Mason Greenwood in August and three months later CEO Richard Arnold announced he was also departing. Arnold presided over a communications shambles – the Club took six months to reach a decision on the future of Greenwood, who remained suspended after the CPS dropped charges of attempted rape, coercive behaviour and assault because key witnesses declined to give evidence.
By procrastinating, the Club gave the impression it was more afraid of being seen to make the wrong decision rather than being motivated by a desire to reach the right decision. It was reported that Arnold wanted to give Greenwood a second chance, but he changed tack because of the anticipated backlash.
The Club’s statement said it was satisfied he was not guilty of the charges levelled against him, only adding to the moral ambiguity. Instead, the Club created a lose-lose scenario, stoking cynicism about its motives and getting no credit for taking a principled stance. An institution’s values come to the fore during a crisis – they should be its north star, not a creature of convenience.
If there was ever a reputation issue which can leave a sour taste in the mouth and more than a tinge of sadness at the same time, it is the scandal which has beset the Captain Tom Moore charity foundation.
The foundation’s future is now in doubt after it was revealed that the Charity Commission was looking into concerns over its accounting and governance. At its heart was payments made to companies run by Tom Moore’s daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, and her husband and suspicions the family had financially benefited.
Not done yet, more controversy was exposed over his daughter’s illegal building of a spa pool house and revelations that she had kept £800,000 in profits from three books Sir Tom had written.
At key points Captain Tom’s daughter gave interviews to state her case, first to This Morning, secondly to Piers Morgan. There was also the airing of a documentary looking at the money trail on Channel 5.
The saga is a salutary tale of how reputation goes beyond how you interact with the media, but is closely connected to the structure of an organisation, and how it is governed and managed. It also underlines the need for those outside the central bubble to give advice – it if looks and feels wrong to them, it probably is.
Probes continue but the public mood has swung – donations dwindled before being suspended. A sorry ending to a tale of dedication and inspiration.
The year draws to a close with news that Unilever is to face fresh investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for making potentially misleading green claims on many of its products. CMA CEO Sarah Cardell summarised that “If we find they’re greenwashing, we’ll take action to make sure shoppers are protected.”
In an operational and communications environment where the climate emergency is front and centre, with increasing scrutiny, legislation and a tide of negativity toward corporate ‘posturing’, Unilever could be made an example of as a warning to others.
Some of the greenwashing it is being investigated for is the use of imagery and visuals that imply a positive or neutral environmental impact on consumer goods. Some is more complex: recyclability claims and language around sustainable products that have huge implications for the supply chain.
One of our hopes at the end of last year was to see humility and pragmatism from both corporates and the media, to create an environment that prioritises debate and action versus promoting a carbon-related cancel culture. That has borne out in a climate of scrutiny from investors, media and regulators, which is a good thing if it leads to change and better understanding of what constitutes meaningful environmental claims, and what is greenwashing.
If other companies big and small are to navigate this landscape, and mitigate reputational and climate risks, they need to interrogate every public claim they make and evidence it.
The CBI began the year as the UK’s most respected and best-known business organisation and ended it clinging on for dear life. A sexual misconduct scandal uncovered by The Guardian led to the defection of key members; a collapse in confidence; the sacking of the Director General; the cancellation of the annual conference; and a funding crisis.
The key decision was to sack Tony Danker over allegations levelled against him. This was complicated by the fact that a slew of more serious allegations against colleagues preceded his own time at the organisation.
The CBI took a calculated risk that it could only regain credibility by starting over with a new leader delivering cultural change. But Danker is an adept media operator and did not go quietly; he ridiculed the decision in a Radio 4 interview, putting the CBI on the back foot. The new leadership team struggled to regain the initiative and restore confidence in the organisation.
Sacking Danker was a bold move. In the short term it failed, partly because the problems were perceived to run deeper than the director-general and he could position himself as a scapegoat. But, over time, the CBI may feel it was a price worth paying if it can re-establish itself as the voice of business. The jury is out.
Rishi Sunak undertook what many would describe as an audacious, and others an unworkable, rebrand of the Conservative Party this year. Following 13 successive years of Tory government, Sunak went on an offensive focused on establishing a new policy platform that distanced itself from the mistakes of the past – including one of his predecessors, David Cameron, whom he subsequently brough back into government.
Underpinned by an ambition to reduce the cost-of-living crisis and “stop the boats”, Sunak sought to claw back control of polling which showed a General Election would likely lead to a landslide Labour Government. For Downing Street, however, the objective of being the heir apparent to Margaret Thatcher was undermined by policy u-turns and byelection disasters.
The Prime Minister’s flagship conference was overshadowed by the axing of the Northern Leg of HS2 and accusations that the Government was deserting ‘blue wall’ communities. This was reflected in a string of byelection results including the Tories losing majorities of around 20,000 in both Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire.
The reputation of the Conservatives as the Party of economic competence and law and order has been damaged perhaps irreparably. Despite an ambitious plan to rebrand the Conservative Party this year, 2024 looks like it could spell further problems for Sunak’s hope of a General Election victory.
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