Persimmon CEO’s fall from grace: an unfair burn or catalogue of media mistakes?

Former Persimmon CEO Jeff Fairburn’s disastrous BBC interview and subsequent fall from grace is a searing reminder of the importance of media training. Fairburn’s controversially large £75m bonus was well-covered by the UK media as the largest bonus in the country, and after a mis-handled broadcast interview with the BBC, negative sentiment towards Fairburn became intrinsically linked to his company – one couldn’t be mentioned without the other.

The issues surrounding the bonus highlight how the perception of a CEO can have a negative effect on the wider business.  The media furore also begs the question of why his conversations weren’t managed correctly, and what other CEOs can learn about managing media briefings and the need for robust corporate public relations – for individuals as well as the business.

The controversy began in November 2017 with the announcement that Fairburn was being awarded a bonus of £110m – the result of a company scheme that had no boundaries on executive-level pay-outs. Criticism came from all angles; industry leaders and politicians slated the company for benefiting from the taxpayer funded “Help to Buy” scheme and accused Persimmon of “corporate looting”. Business media seized the opportunity to investigate how this happened, and owners of substandard Persimmon Homes vented their frustration on social media.

Even though the company’s bonus scheme has structural flaws, it was a series of PR disasters and negative media sentiment that marked Fairburn’s downfall. It started with his initial remarks after the bonus was announced: he insisted the £110m bonus was deserved because he “worked very hard.” In the same comments, Fairburn refused to confirm whether he would be donating any of the money to charity, stating it was a “private matter.” In doing so, he shut down the opportunity to turn the bonus into a positive message for himself and for his company.  This lack of understanding towards how to deal with this crisis meant the press continued to report on the scandal and put pressure on the business.

A few months after the initial interview, Fairburn changed tack and stated he never wanted the £110m bonus, he was putting a significant sum into a charitable trust and would in fact be taking home a reduced £75m sum. Even though this was an abrupt turnaround, the statements did go some way to lessening the negative coverage of his personal bonus – and company.

After nearly a year of mismanaged media appearances, Fairburn’s final mistake was the BBC North interview in October. Questions around the bonus were to be expected, and yet he responded to the (pre-recorded and filmed) interviewer with “It’s very unfortunate that you asked that,” and walked away. An off-screen PR is heard encouraging this decision.

The lack of foresight around uncomfortable questions that media may ask, and the missed opportunity to use the interview to share messaging around the bonus reduction, charitable donation, work ethic and growth of the company is not just a shame – the interview was a veritable disaster. The clip was shared on social media (over 10,000 times), across the broad spread of the UK broadcast, print and online media, and reignited the year-old crisis around the bonus.

This morning, Persimmon announced Fairburn’s departure, stating “the distraction around his remuneration from the 2012 LTIP (long term incentive plan) scheme continues to have a negative impact on the reputation of the business and consequently on Jeff’s ability to continue in his role.” Even though Fairburn will receive the bonus in full, Persimmon saw the risk of keeping him in his role as too high for the business. After all, the infamous video clip will continue to be shared on the internet (and in crisis training sessions) forever.

Persimmon’s mistakes shine a light on the need for well managed and positive messaging from a CEO and senior management. Leaders of businesses provide a window into a company, and when a negative story is pushed out into the media, they need to be properly advised as to how to manage it.

Ultimately, Jeff Fairburn failed to counter the negative press attention surrounding his bonus or convey his company’s key messages to media. Other CEOs should see Persimmon’s media burn as a warning that they should update their messaging, media training, and have the right kind of PR counsel – one that acknowledges issues head-on rather than recommending an awkward shuffle off-camera.

If you need corporate PR support, crisis planning or to prepare your C-Suite for your next media outing speak to our team today to find out how we can work with you.

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