Five things we learnt: A view from the Chairman’s office with Douglas Flint

Five things we learnt: A view from the Chairman’s office with Douglas Flint

Geoff Duggan

Last week we were delighted to welcome Douglas Flint CBE, Group Chairman, HSBC Holdings plc to Pagefield for a breakfast discussion on the importance of corporate reputation and how organisations should go about safeguarding this when things go wrong. Here are five things we learnt:

Don’t underestimate the importance of preparation

Organisations take enormous pride in their ability to fix things, so often when things do go wrong they are already on the back foot. High profile events in recent years from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to the TalkTalk cyber-attack have demonstrated the need for corporate affairs professionals to be rigorous and honest in their appraisal of potential issues and to ensure that they are prepared for the worst. It may sound obvious but all leaders need to go through the relevant training from in-studio media handling to Parliamentary Select Committee practice. It’s better to be asked the questions you don’t want to be asked before you get in to a live situation. Similarly, avoid ‘why are you only talking to me now?’ situations by being proactive and investing time in building relationships with media so when an issue does occur it can more easily be put into context.

An early warning system

You can learn very quickly when something has gone wrong on social media – an arena where information and misinformation spreads equally as quick. Having a dedicated social media monitoring function can make all the difference in preventing an issue escalating into a crisis. But at the same time organisations shouldn’t become obsessed or beholden to what’s said about them online.

Going public

Douglas noted that the food industry has traditionally been very good at responding quickly if something goes wrong, but that others – including the increasing number of companies who have fallen prey to cyber-attacks – have struggled with when to go public. Here there is an inevitable compromise between acknowledging the problem promptly and getting the facts – which can sometimes take days or even weeks. Getting this balance right is made more difficult in the social media age when people expect answers in real time. Similarly, the days of having a communications plan which say ‘no comment’ are over. A major challenge for boards is to balance what you can say with what your lawyers say you can say.

Don’t forget your own staff in a crisis

A very public crisis can have a big impact on your own people. They will be the ones who will read every word of the press coverage when others have moved on to the next story. It’s crucial that you spend time equipping them with the facts and the answers so they can respond when asked tough questions in their community and even around their own dinner table.

Don’t overstate your case

In and outside of crisis communications, Douglas noted that there is a worrying tendency for companies to publicly overplay the impact of external events or upcoming decisions on their business. For example, if X happens the economy will collapse, the company will go under or jobs will be lost. Exaggerated claims – usually made with the express aim of preventing or influencing change – undermine trust from the public and policy makers alike. Like the boy who cried wolf there is a real risk that if companies keep exaggerating for effect, nobody will listen or care when they have a genuine case to make.


 Photo credit: HSBC