Andy Street, managing director of John Lewis, is not a businessman with much experience of being in the eye of a media storm.
After all, John Lewis is one of the retail sector’s most notable success stories and its corporate image – which occupies a place somewhere between motherhood and apple pie in the national psyche – is the envy of its rivals.
But, speaking at a John Lewis awards event, Mr Street described France as a “finished” country where “nothing works and, worse, nobody cares about it”. He branded Paris Gare du Nord as “the squalor pit of Europe”; bad-mouthed French food and wine; and described an award he received at a business conference in Paris as “made of plastic and frankly revolting…If I needed any further evidence of a country in decline, here it is. Every time [I see the award] I shall think, ‘God help France’”.
Then, for good measure, he urged investors to get their cash out of France as quickly as possible.
John Lewis boss: ‘France is sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat … it’s finished’ https://t.co/gXn2r0tqwH
— The Guardian (@guardian) October 3, 2014
The Times put the story on its front page. The response from the other side of the English Channel wasn’t long in coming; the deputy mayor of Paris described his remarks as “false and idiotic” while the Franco-British Council condemned them as an example of “a festering antagonism with the French and France from the British”.
Hardly ideal timing, given that John Lewis was about to launch a French language version of its website.
So, what was the correct PR response: Batten down the hatches and hope the row turned into nothing more than a 24-hour Twitter storm? Complain your quotes had been taken out of context? Or front up and face the music?
Mr Street chose the last option. It was the right one. Although insisting his remarks were supposed to be tongue in cheek and “lighthearted”, he didn’t try to deny he’d dropped a corporate clanger. He expressed regret and said: “On reflection, I clearly went too far and apologise unreservedly.”
By responding swiftly and with obvious contrition he contained the situation and, although it gave the story another 24-hour shelf life, it meant he was in control of the narrative. As an exercise in damage limitation, it was 100 percent effective.
It raises a second, interesting question: as a business leader – or public figure of any sort – can you afford to make jokes in public?
I can understand Mr Street’s frustration. His remarks weren’t meant to be taken seriously; anyone who heard them must have known that, he probably moaned to his aides. But don’t blame the reporter: which journalist is going to pass up gold-dust like that? And, of course, when “lighthearted” remarks appear on the printed page they take on an entirely different persona.
Many years ago, when I was sport editor of the Daily Mail, we carried a joint interview with Tim Henman and Andy Murray – the first they had ever done together. The journalist who interviewed them, Des Kelly, rang to tell me he’d got a great line: Murray had admitted that, when it came to football, he’d support anyone but England.
But Des implored me not to make too much of it – it was clearly meant as a joke during a bit of football banter between the two men. So I carried the remarks in the course of a 2,000-word interview spread over two pages and highlighted the quotes, but didn’t splash it all over the back page.
Not so some of our rivals, who pounced on the quotes a day later, put plenty of topspin on them and whipped up a ferocious storm about this chippy young Scot, who hated the English. To some extent, Murray’s never lived it down and I still see the same line being trotted out time and time again by his critics.
For that reason, I’ve always felt sorry for Murray. OK, he was a surly young man who only wanted to play tennis and did little to soften his image, but can you blame him for hating interviews with a passion when he felt he had been stitched up by a hostile media?
Since then he has become more comfortable in his skin and confident enough to be his own man – though he quickly regretted his pro-Scottish independence tweet on the eve of September’s referendum. But, for Murray, courting favour is desirable, not essential; his commercial worth comes from his status in the game rather than his popularity outside it.
For business leaders, it’s not that simple. No one wants to see CEOs so scared of their shadow they are reduced to spouting corporate-speak – the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell, Michael O’Leary and Sir Richard Branson have made their names from being high-profile, highly quotable public figures – but, as a rule of thumb, attempts at levity are best avoided if you’re slagging off an entire nation of potential customers.
Gerald Ratner could tell you all about that.