Bradford’s Paul Flowers, ex Co-op Bank chair and suspended reverend, might not have done much for the reputation of banking or the Methodists, but he has exposed some interesting crisis management over the past couple of weeks. So in the spirit of caring and sharing I bring you two examples of how to turn iffy stories to advantage. They share a golden thread – a clear conscience.
The award for averting reputational damage whilst potentially choking children to death as they walk to school must go to Terry Waldron, erstwhile PR man for ICI, who combined quick thinking with bacon butties in 1995 after a faulty light fitting sparked the biggest fire Teesside had seen since the Second World War.
As dawn broke that October morning flames were raging through buildings on the sprawling petrochemicals complex identified (unfairly, they would say) by Jimmy Nail’s Spender as somewhere to “catch cancer”. Terry was faced with a looming pall of black smoke guiding the wise men of journalism to his door like an apocalyptic star of Bethlehem.
Unphased by biblical imagery as locals drove to work under darkening skies and in fear of their lives ICI calmly opened up the splendidly situated Wilton Castle, owned by the company and overlooking the chemical site they managed, and invited us to join them. Official spokespeople were soon on hand, but the clever bit was extending the invitation to critics, concerned campaigners, MPs and anyone else who wanted to chip in. This was not spin or command and control PR – it was a company, in adversity, saying “Look, we’re not hiding anything and we’re doing all we can.”
When a chef in whites appeared with hot bacon rolls and coffee we journalists had everything we could have asked for. Hardly surprisingly Terry, who’s still on Teesside as PR Manager for Sembcorp Utilities, remembers the reporting that day as being fair and accurate. Genius.
Meanwhile, what to do when some journo rings up and asks awkward questions? Promise to call back in due course, then don’t? If dodging, bluster and evasion is your default response the alarm bells should be ringing – they certainly are for the hack making the call.
For a breath of non-dodging fresh air, step forward Andrew Pern, chef and co-owner at York’s swanky new Star Inn The City. I don’t know for sure what his firm is like to work for, but I’d hazard a guess at not bad. One call to his restaurant on a recent Sunday morning got me his mobile number – how many organisations run by ogres have a sufficiently relaxed culture for staff to hand out the boss’ number? To reinforce the point he answered my unrecognised number, then agreed to me turning up that lunchtime with a camera to discuss why his sector claims not be able to afford to pay workers the living wage. He let me into his pride and joy of a new business venture at the busiest time to ask him anything I wanted to about low wages. In exchange he got some publicity – and my respect. He didn’t even complain when I stupidly pushed the kitchen door open without checking and sent a waiter flying.
The lesson is surely that the well-organised outfit, confident that it is doing the right thing, has little to worry about. Questions? Ask away. You can only say that with complete confidence when you know you have nothing to hide. If you can’t say it, maybe it’s time to rethink things.
To the blusterers and dodgers I’d say talk to Terry, he might help you get things in order. Or pay Andrew a visit, then at least you’ll have a nice lunch.