The Reputation Report: March 2024

In this month’s edition of ‘The Reputation Report’, our experts provide insights into the month’s leading corporate communications trends and reputational challenges. This month’s talking points include the aftermath of Nike’s design change on the England football kit, the Princess of Wales’ recent announcement through to the ongoing troubles facing Boeing and the departure of their CEO.

Nike & the FA’s kit fiasco

Since the announcement of the new England kit design, negative sentiment around ‘Nike’ across UK press and socials has reached over 60%. In addition to this, the FA have reportedly planned an ‘urgent overhaul’ of how England kits are approved following huge backlash against Nike’s latest strip. Divisional Managing Director of Corporate Neil McLeod commented:

‘Nike’s fumbling over communicating its flimsy justification behind the design change on the new £125 England kit is a real own goal for the company and has forced the FA onto the back foot. It failed to understand the importance of the St George’s flag to sports fans and appeared to be making up responses as it went along. 

Originally branded as a “playful update” to the traditional red and white, Nike’s decision to update the flag on the collar of England’s shirt led to widespread uproar, and ultimately resulted in condemnation from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Nike is not new to this. It’s deal with the FA was extended in 2016 to carry it through to 2030 – a deal reportedly valued at around £400million. 

But the saga shows the importance of having an in-depth understanding of your stakeholders and not allowing a vacuum to be established into which anger and dissatisfaction becomes a major part of the story.

Debate continues to rage as to how the approval process did not raise potential opposition to the change to the St George’s flag design. The media news cycle has turned focus on the FA individuals involved. 

It demonstrates the importance of placing a long-term communications strategy at the heart of major decisions, especially given reports that the updated strip had been two years in the making.

Effective corporate affairs counsel would have ensured a potential reputational risk was stopped at source, and the FA and Nike would not be left facing demands for product recalls. The price is more likely to damage sales but fans will be hoping that England’s Euro 2024 planning is better than Nike’s communications’.

The Princess of Wales

Following the Princess of Wales’ announcement on Friday March 22nd, there has been a huge outpouring of public support. Divisional Managing Director of Reputation Tim Jotischky commented:

‘Buckingham Palace’s ‘never explain, never complain’ mantra may finally be consigned to history after the Princess of Wales ended months of speculation by revealing her cancer diagnosis.

Her video message to the nation was a very direct, honest and moving response, all the more powerful because she had scripted it herself. It cut through, dismantling the conspiracy theories and making all the moral indignation about her use of Photoshop seem very foolish.

But the saga also laid bare an awkward truth at the heart of the royal communications strategy. Whilst the royals might feel they have every right to medical confidentiality, they are not private individuals. In any scenario involving a high-profile public figure if you leave a vacuum, it will be inevitably filled with misinformation and there comes a point when the negative impact of that approach may outweigh a natural desire for privacy.

It is a delicate balance and communications advisors have to be sensitive to their clients’ wishes when it comes to health issues, regardless of the specific context. Imposing a communications strategy on a reluctant client, whose primary concern is understandably to protect their family, is not easy and not always advisable.

Ultimately, however, the upside was the overwhelming public response to the video message recorded by the Princess of Wales. Aside from an outpouring of support from around the globe, it triggered a significant increase in online searches for advice and support about cancer and its symptoms.

The Royal Family has always been popular when it seems most connected to the British people – during the Blitz, for example – and its secret sauce is a mix of mystique and ordinariness. Paradoxically, showing vulnerability can also be its greatest strength’.

Boeing & the departure of their CEO

Boeing has seen a 23% decrease to its share price following the highly public failure of one of its door panels. Following these recent headlines, the company’s Chairman & CEO both announced that they would be stepping down as part of a wider leadership shake-up. Director of Corporate Mimi Brown commented:

‘Following a panel being blown out the side of a plane in January, Boeing’s top level executive shake up was a predictable but necessary move as it works to climb away from the storm of a deepening crisis.

The range of safety issues which has hit the US jet maker is a stark reminder of how a negative, constrictive company culture – if left un-challenged – can plunge any company into a spiral of potentially fatal reputation issues, let alone one which makes commercial aeroplanes. There is now a critical need to rebuild trust and quell uncertainty among staff, regulators, passengers and the markets.  

That job was initially given to the now departing Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun. He had served on Boeing’s board for many years before taking the CEO spot in 2020, following crashes of two brand new 737 Max planes in 2018 and 2019 that killed nearly 350 people.

He arrived with promises of re-building trust and promoting a safety culture. But his statement this week underlines clearly that the same challenges are yet to be met. He has even been accused of simply telling investors what they wanted to hear, rather than dealing with the issues at hand. 

There have been various reports into Boeing and how it has handled its issues. One independent panel found a ‘disconnect’ between senior management and staff, as well as signs that safety issues were not raised for fear of being penalised by management for doing so.

This means the culture issue is significant and should dictate what happens next.

Calhoun states he plans to “complete the critical work under way to stabilize and position the company for the future” before he departs – but leaving the business and reputational mop-up to a departing senior leadership team already drained from a series of crises including Covid-19, might not deliver the action and tone required for a new chapter at Boeing.

Succession is always important. In a crisis such as this, even more so. Boeing may be well placed to bring a fresh and outside perspective into the boardroom – or risk an echo-chamber’.

What’s in store for April?

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