You’re the CEO of a company. A senior colleague has recently tendered his resignation; you’re disappointed he’s leaving, but have put him on six months gardening leave. It all seems reasonably amicable and you don’t think too much more of it.
Then one day, out of the blue, the world caves in. He contacts you to say he has decided to leave with immediate effect and is putting into the public domain a number of serious allegations about your company. He puts the allegations to you and asks what comments you would like included in an article he is about to publish.
What do you do?
That was the dilemma faced by Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, when chief political commentator Peter Oborne launched a coruscating attack on his former employer. He accused The Telegraph of allowing commercial interests to dictate editorial policy, documenting a number of instances when the paper’s coverage of HSBC had been skewed by its fears the bank might withdraw its advertising. He held MacLennan personally responsible and, in a series of TV and radio interviews, called for him to quit, saying the staff had no confidence in him.
For any company, the prospect of a senior employee – especially one with a high public profile – trashing its reputation represents a formidable PR challenge. That’s particularly true when, as CEO, you are being singled out for blame. MacLennan, a sensitive man, will have hated that.
I should state at this point that as former Business Editor of The Telegraph I have personal knowledge of the situation and note that a number of my former colleagues have backed up Oborne’s allegations, albeit anonymously. But the purpose of this blog is to offer general advice about handling a situation where a senior employee has “gone rogue”, not to unpick the rights and wrongs of the Telegraph case.
The first rule, as in any crisis, is to have a plan in place. Who is in your crisis communications team? What is its structure? Who will front your company’s response?
I talked recently to the CEO of a £50m company, which was accused of unethical behaviour by a whistle-blower. The first he knew of it was when a television journalist contacted him on holiday to say the allegations were about to be broadcast. His right-hand man was on holiday too. There was no plan. They decided to do nothing and allowed the storm to break; the allegations duly caused long-term reputational damage to his company.
In fact, the whistle-blower, who was a very junior employee, had left the company under a cloud. But the CEO had no PR support and didn’t know whether, or how, to communicate this. With the right advice, he could have mitigated the situation. The journalist could have been briefed on the circumstances of the employee’s departure and the question marks over his integrity, raising doubts over his reliability as a witness.
The second rule is to stay calm. When your company’s integrity is being attacked, you are being held personally responsible, and the story is leading news bulletins, that’s easier said than done. It’s why having external advisors is so important. They are one step removed from the boardroom and can assess the situation more dispassionately than you can.
You will be emotional and possibly irrational; you’ll also feel vulnerable. A good media advisor will be your confidant, your sounding board, your human sponge to soak up all the frustration. They’ll also offer you sound strategic counsel.
The third rule is to keep events in proportion. When you’re engulfed by a media storm, it’s tempting to overreact. You need to distinguish between a one-day wonder and a story “with legs” that will still be making waves in a week, a month or even a year. The key questions to ask yourself are: Will the allegations cause fundamental long-term damage to my company’s reputation? Do they strike at the heart of my strategic vision for the company?
Your answers will help you to decide whether and how to respond. Sometimes, a story which, at first sight, looks very damaging is incidental to your core business and, despite the negative headlines, non-engagement can be the quickest way of riding out the storm.
But in the case of Oborne’s attack on The Telegraph that was not the case. He accused the paper of defrauding its readers by allowing commercial relationships to override editorial judgements. That meant they could not trust the paper’s journalism – a fundamental charge levelled by a respected journalist who had worked on the paper for five years.
In its response, the Telegraph did not attempt to refute Oborne’s specific allegations of instances where HSBC had been given soft treatment because of its importance as a commercial partner. Instead, it stated “the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business” and denounced his attack as “astonishing and unfounded, full of inaccuracy and innuendo”.
That did little to defuse things and drawing attention elsewhere in its statement to Oborne’s longevity at the paper only reinforced the impression he was talking from a position of authority.
Some commentators criticised The Telegraph for not addressing Oborne’s allegations in detail, though in truth this would have been impossible without getting into some very murky waters. The broad-brush response was, therefore, the only possible one, even if it was less effective.
The final rule, when handling a whistle-blower’s allegations, is to find a way of seizing the initiative and start telling the story on your own terms.
Facing calls for an independent inquiry, on day four of the crisis The Telegraph used its own pages to make a promise to readers. It gave a robust defence of its editorial integrity and took a swipe at its critics, but also announced it would draw up new guidelines to define how its editorial and commercial teams work together in future.
While denying Oborne’s allegations had any substance, The Telegraph simultaneously promised a new way of operating. Why? So, in future, they can dismiss the questions he raised as old hat, pointing to a robust business model now in place.
A small victory for Oborne or a smart PR response? I’ll leave you to decide.