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Updates from The Griffin Consultancy and insights into crisis, issues and reputation management.

Notes on a Scandal

2023 has already seen some ‘scandal’ crises, the two most high profile in the UK being the CBI (sexual harassment allegations) and ITV (This Morning/Philip Schofield). Whilst all crises are unique, these and others remind us of other conduct scandals such as Oxfam (sexual misconduct), BBC (Jimmy Savile) Yorkshire CCC (racism) and the Met Police (misogyny).

The scandal crisis is in my view the one of the hardest to manage, for three reasons. First, it is almost by definition of public interest (we all love a scandal) and can spark an immediate sense of outrage. Second, it is rarely seen as an unfortunate one-off incident or something outside the organisation’s control; the failure to prevent it or identify it earlier suggests a wider, deeper failing. Third, some stakeholders (customers, advertisers, members, staff, sponsors, donors) may vote quickly with their feet, and the impacts can be long and damaging.

The formula for dealing with a scandal crisis seems simple enough: suspend those involved pending an internal investigation, apologise and launch an external review with a commitment to making positive change. But behind this formula is a minefield of dilemmas and difficulties. There is the question of justice/fairness versus speed/decisiveness, and the duty of care to those accused as well as the alleged victims. There may be significant media interest and, for organisations of a certain size and profile, a political inquiry. Leaders will want to balance the need to investigate thoroughly with not wanting the organisation to be defined by the scandal for months and years to come. They will need to manage the demand for heads to roll – not only those whose conduct is questioned but also those who ‘failed to spot the signs’ or ‘set the corporate culture’. As well as trying to keep external stakeholders on side to keep the company viable, there will likely in time be a staff retention/attraction challenge.

Can you prepare for such a crisis? Yes you can and, as recent events show, you should. Running a crisis exercise simulating a scandal can seem complex, but the topic lends itself well to a desktop exercise for senior teams who will have to face the dilemmas posed. These are, after all, crises that require high level decision making, organisational change and stakeholder management.

Such preparedness activity might also help with prevention. As well as rehearsing a response, a good exercise shines a light on risks and vulnerabilities and can therefore stimulate action. Senior teams should be able to go upstream from the scenario to ask whether and how it could have happened in reality and commit themselves to do more to prevent such scenarios from occurring.

It is telling that, of the dozen or so crisis exercises I have run in the last year, all have been on operational incidents or information security. None have been based on poor conduct. And yet scandals stick in the public/stakeholder consciousness for the longest, and can hit reputation hardest.

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