The five worst CEO off-the-cuff comments

Chief Executives can have an amazing ability to put their foot in their mouth when it comes to making off-the-cuff or unguarded comments.

A casual passing remark at an event or a misguided attempt at humour in a speech can cause communications teams sleepless nights as the comments spread across social media and mainstream media.

Some of these damaging remarks may have gone unreported in the days before social media but now everyone with a smartphone and a 3g connection has the potential to be a journalist.

Reputations can be broken almost instantly - 140 characters has never been so powerful.

Before we look at what businesses can do to mitigate the chances of off the cuff comments lets first take a look at five infamous off-the cuff comments…

‘Because it’s total crap’

The ultimate off-the cuff gaffe took place before the rise of social media. In 1991 Gerald Ratner managed to wipe £500 million from the value of Ratners Jewellers with a speech to the UK Institute of Directors.

He said: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver plated tray that your butler can serve your drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price? I say, ‘because it’s total crap’.

He added that his store’s earrings were ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.”

Customers understandably took offence and took their business elsewhere.

‘The trouble with girls’

Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize winning biochemist, was addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists in South Korea when he said that he was in favour of single-sex labs. He also said: “Let me tell you about the trouble with girls…three things happen when they are in the lab….You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry.”

His comments were tweeted by Connie St Louis from the City University in London, who added “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”

Mr Hunt later said he meant the comments to be humorous but against a huge media and social media backlash he resigned from his position at the University College of London.

‘France is sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat…it’s finished’

Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis, was speaking at an event in London shortly before his company was due to launch a French language website when he described France as ‘sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat’. Adding that the country was ‘finished’ he said: “I have never been to a country more ill at ease…nothing works and nobody cares about it.”

His comments swept across Twitter and reached the the mainstream media. A spokesman for John Lewis said the remarks were ‘tongue in cheek and not meant to be taken seriously’, but Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris, said the statements were ‘false and idiotic’.

‘I want my life back’

BP CEO Tony Hayward made his infamous unguarded remark during a television interview and it had damaging consequences.

Mr Hayward had been chosen to front the company’s response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 when he appeared on television and said: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”

He was quickly forced into a grovelling apology.

He said: “I apologise, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. “

Hayward was replaced as chief executive later the same year. The ‘I want my life back’ phrase remains closely associated with him and his handling of the disaster is widely seen as a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis.

‘The women are not very attractive’

The boss of Burger King was forced into a grovelling apology after recalling that there were few distractions when he studied at Warwick University.

Bernardo Hees, was speaking in Chicago, when he said: “The food is terrible and the women are not very attractive.”

His comments triggered an angry response from female students and British chefs. Charli Fritzner from Warwick University said the remarks ‘did not make Burger King an attractive employer for women’ while Michelin starred chef Marcus Wareing questioned whether a man who sold burgers was qualified to comment on ‘British gastronomy’.

Burger King said its chief executive regretted his remarks and added: “Mr Hees apologises if his comment has offended anyone. It was intended as a humorous anecdote to connect with his audience.”

So, what can you do to minimise the risk?

1) Be prepared –make sure you have a crisis plan in place because if your boss makes any remarks like the ones in the examples above you will find yourself in crisis mode.

2) Diary events –make sure you know where and when your senior leaders will be speaking, even if there is not expected to be any media present.

3) Practice – Ask your executive team to run through any public statements they will be making and suggest changes if necessary.

4) Media training – make sure your bosses have had media training and presentations training. It may prevent them making the comments in the first place. If not, they will need the skills to handle the media afterwards.

5) Act quickly – as in any crisis, get your messages out quickly. Even if your initial statements are short and lack detail they will at least show you are in control.

6) Apologise – be honest and admit when a mistake has been made.

What are the worst off-the cuff comments you have heard? Let us know in the comments box below.

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