2023 – A year in crisis

The biggest stories of 2023 were not just about political upheaval, international conflict, the impacts of climate change and the soaring cost of living.

Numerous organisations have also found there is room under the spotlight for coverage of their mistakes.

Our crisis media management review of the year looks back at the brand crises that grabbed our attention and the lessons others can learn from them.

 

I’m a Celebrity... get me a bank account

At the start of the year, exclusive bank Coutts may have seemed like an unlikely candidate for a brand to find itself at the centre of the UK culture war.

But the 331-year-old bank, which prides itself on discretion and being the choice of the rich and famous, saw its reputation placed under the microscope after debanking right-wing political pundit Nigel Farage.

The bank claimed it made the move because Mr Farage no longer met its wealth threshold. While the former politician argued it was politically motivated.

And he used a subject access request to receive a 40-page dossier that had been compiled about him, which described him as a “disingenuous grifter”, and claimed he promoted “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views”

The row led to Dame Alison Rose, the boss of Natwest, which owns Coutts, resigning and Coutts CEO Peter Flavel stepping down.

An independent review found that the decision to close the accounts was lawful, but there were “serious failings” in the treatment of the former UKIP leader.

From a crisis communication perspective, one of the main failings was that the bank allowed Mr Farage to control the narrative, with days passing before it responded to his claims.

The saga is also a reminder that honesty is a much better policy than attempted cover ups. The crisis was intensified and prolonged by what the bank said in the initial stages turning out to be incorrect.

The crisis should also have been anticipated. Like or loathe him, Mr Farage is skilled at gaining publicity. And while he has previously preached that ‘leave means leave’, he was never going to go quietly.

So, there should have been plans in place to manage the inevitable media spotlight and fallout.

 

Bud Light’s crisis management falls flat

There’s been plenty of debate about brands getting involved in political activism and using the platforms to raise awareness of issues and pursue positive change.

And one of the biggest fallouts centred on Bud Light working with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on social media posts.

 

The posts included showing off a custom can the company gifted her in honour of her one-year anniversary of transitioning.

And they triggered massive outrage.

Among calls for a boycott, country singer Travis Tritt banned the beer from his upcoming tour.

And another musician, Kid Rock, posted a video of him firing a gun at packs of Bud Light – a perfectly normal way to respond to something you don’t like.

After initially staying quiet – apart from confirming it sometimes creates commemorative cans as gifts - CEO Brendan Whitworth issued a wordy and vague statement under the title ‘Our responsibility to America’.

In it, he said: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

And added: “I care deeply about this country, this company, our brands and our partners. I spend much of my time travelling across America, listening to and learning from our customers, distributors.”

The statement succeeded in upsetting just about everyone. Those on the left felt the company was now backtracking in the face of the backlash.

And the right felt the company had not gone far enough with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis encouraging people to keep boycotting the beer.

The company later backtracked further, announcing it would focus future marketing campaigns on sport and music.

The crisis cost the owners of America’s best-selling beer around $395m.

So, a case of go woke and go broke?

We don’t think so. As we have highlighted in our blogs throughout the year, taking a stand, when done well, can help brands reach people whose ideas resonate with your thoughts.

But the Bud Lite brand backlash offers lessons around considering your audience, preparing for a fallout, and not being paralysed by fear if the narrative is taken over by those with opposing views.

 

BP suffers a cost-of-loving crisis

The behaviour of bosses is an increasing source of reputational risk, and must feature in crisis plans alongside workplace accidents, data breaches, product recalls, supply chain issues and natural disasters.

Figures reported by the Financial Times showed half of forced CEO departures among the 3,000 largest US companies last year were due to personal conduct, an increase of 14 per cent from 2017.

One of the most recent examples came from BP.

The oil giant moved into crisis media management mode after Bernard Looney, its chief executive, resigned over personal relationships with staff.

It had recently started an investigation into alleged relationships Mr Looney had with colleagues - the second in two years.

It said Mr Looney, who has been in the hot seat since 2020, was not "fully transparent" initially.

Details about the allegations were not revealed. But the lack of transparency seems to have been the decisive factor.

The disorderly departure of a man who had spent his career with the company plunged it into crisis mode.

But the fallout was well managed.

While questions remain about whether it had previously ignored concerns about Mr Looney’s behaviour, it acted decisively, temporarily replacing Mr Looney with the experienced Murray Auchincloss, its chief financial officer.

And he quickly delivered a webcast to all BP staff, stressing it was business as usual.

It was also reported that the company launched a review of all personal relationships between staff, particularly at senior levels.

But perhaps we should not be surprised. This was the third CEO to abruptly leave BP. John Browne, Tony Hayward (no stranger to our crisis communication training blogs), and Mr Looney have all prematurely departed the firm since 2007 for different reasons.

So, it’s had plenty of preparation.

 

British Gas boss faces the heat

BP wasn’t the only fossil fuels giant facing the heat this year.

An undercover investigation revealed debt collectors used by British Gas were forcing their way into homes to install prepayment meters.

The story was the front-page lead in The Times under the headline ‘British Gas breaks into homes of the vulnerable’.

It included a distressing first-hand account from a reporter who was part of a team that forced their way into a family home during January’s cold snap.

And footage shared online showed a debt collector from Arvato Financial Solutions – the company used by British Gas - saying: “This is the exciting bit. I love this bit.”

Chris O’Shea, the CEO of Centrica, the company that owns the energy giant, fronted the response with a series of interviews where he showed compassion, took responsibility and demonstrated that action was being taken by suspending the contractor.

He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s nothing I can say that can express the horror I had when I heard and saw this. It is completely unacceptable. That language is unacceptable.

“The contractor we’ve employed – Arvato – has let us down. But I’m accountable for this. This happened when people were acting on behalf of British Gas.

“There’s nothing that can be said to excuse that. Every one of our customers deserves to be treated with respect. That’s what I’d expect of myself. That’s what I’d expect of my colleagues. That’s what I’d expect of our contractors.

“As soon as we heard this, we suspended Arvato. They are not doing any work for us right now.”

Asked by Sky News how he felt when he saw the footage, Mr O’Shea replied: “Disappointed, livid, gutted. This is not who I am. It is not the standards I set myself.

“It is not the standards that I set the company. It is not who we are. It is not how we do business. There is no excuse.”

British Gas’ tagline before the story broke was that it is “tooled up” to help bring energy bills down. 

Unfortunate wording, given the revelations. But it quickly dropped the phrase on social media. 

And Mr O’Shea did show he had the tools to manage the media during the early stages of a crisis.

 

Nicola Bulley and police failings

The Nicola Bulley case dominated the news earlier this year.

It held public attention in a way rarely seen in missing person enquiries.

At times, speculation about what had happened was rampant, filling a communication void created by Lancashire Police.

One of the fascinating parts of the case from a crisis comms perspective was the involvement of Peter Faulding, an underwater search expert.

At times, you would have been forgiven for thinking he was the spokesperson for the investigation.

He gave numerous broadcast and print interviews. Sometimes, he gave several updates a day, and the interventions were largely unhelpful for the investigation.

When police did eventually try to take control of the story, it further damaged its reputation.

The decision taken three weeks into the search to release information about Nicola’s issues with alcohol and the menopause felt like a massive invasion of privacy.

It was hard to see how releasing the information so long into the search could help find her.

But even then, the messaging was muddled. Initially, police spoke about “a number of specific vulnerabilities” that saw Nicola being classified as a high-risk missing person.

Asked during a press conference what those vulnerabilities were, police said it was “private, personal information”.

Yet, a few hours later, police disclosed she had issues “brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause”.

The mother-of-two’s body was eventually found in the River Wyre.

A subsequent College of Policing investigation said that disclosure of personal information was “avoidable and unnecessary” and found that the force’s media handling and communication led to a “breakdown of public confidence”.

And Mr Faulding issued a statement saying: "If at any time I was asked to stop updating the media, I would have immediately, but no request was ever made."

During our crisis media management training, we stress that when organisations fail to communicate, speculation, rumour, and gossip fill the void. And in the age of 24-hour news and social media, speculation travels far and wide, especially when the public is heavily invested in the story.

As Dr Iain Raphael, who led the review, said: "Ultimately, police should seek to be the first with the truth and ensure the public has access to accurate and authoritative information when it is most needed."

 

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An old favourite back in the spotlight

It’s always nice to bump into an old favourite at this time of year.

A year after being in the crisis media management spotlight for the worst data breach in Australian history, the company’s frail reputation took another battering when it left much of the population without phone or internet connection.

The disruption was estimated to have impacted 10m people, and hospitals, public transport networks and businesses.

And the company and its CEO were widely criticised for their response to the crisis. The Australian Chamber of Commerce labelled it a “clown show”. And a specific part has been described as a “PR disaster.”

The decision by CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin to proceed with a photo shoot at her lavish mansion just hours after the outage struck feels like one of the more bizarre crisis management decisions of the year.

Even her husband, Rodney Rosmarin, admitted the timing was “unfortunate”.

Beyond those damaging optics, the crisis response was harmed by a lack of speed and communication.

The Optus outage began at around 4am. Yet, the first response from the company, in the form of short, bland, social media posts, didn’t go out until 6.47.

That’s a long time for rumour, speculation, narratives, frustration and negative impact stories to build.

And it was hours later that we heard from the boss.

The lack of communication was raised during a radio interview where Ms Bayer Rosmarin sounded defensive and appeared to blame the media.

“I think it would be great if the media could help direct people to our messages,” she said.

“We do have messages out there. We are being very clear with our customers. It would be great to continue to direct people to our website and the My Optus App, where it is very clear what our customers need to do.”

That would be great if people could access the internet.

There was also little information about what caused the outage.

Optus called it a “technical network issue” and said it can’t say more until investigations were carried out.

What jarred more is that the CEO also claimed the issue was too technical to explain.

She said: “It’s a very technical explanation for what happened. There is no soundbite that is going to do it justice, so we want to really bottom out the root cause and when we have that very clear and in a digestible form, we will be forthcoming.”

That lacks the transparency needed in crisis communication, suggests there was information it did not want to release, sounds arrogant and can create the impression the company does not know what went wrong.

It reminded me of a famous quote from Albert Einstein.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” he said.

The latest crisis proved to be one too many for Ms Bayer Rosmarin who resigned a week after the outage. 

 

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We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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