An easy guide to destroying reputations

The kerfuffle surrounding Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and the BBC came to a conclusion of sorts a few days ago with Brand quitting, Ross suspended and the BBC’s head of Radio 2 resigning.

This story has many of the ingredients of the type of soap opera you typically see on British television these days including in-your-face foul language, mean behaviour masquerading as comedy, and sex.

If you’ve not been following the events that have been the top news headline in the UK all week, the BBC timeline can help you get up to speed with it all.

In brief, this is what it’s about:

  • Lewd phone calls made to actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel in TV show Fawlty Towers) by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on Brand’s Radio 2 show on October 18 – calls regarded as distasteful, even offensive, by around 30,000 people who complained to the BBC – prompted an escalating and highly-public row that culminated in Brand quitting his show and the BBC and flying off to the US.
  • Subsequently, Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas resigned, and Ross has been suspended for three months without pay (he earns £16,000 a day from his BBC contract).

Yet it’s actually about much more than these bare facts, igniting as it has mainstream media editorials left, right and centre plus wide commentary and opinion across all sectors of society about moral standards, acceptable behaviours, overpaid radio and TV presenters, the generational divide, the role of a public service broadcaster in modern society and of course that hardy perennial, the television license.

The only thing I want to add to the mass of opinion out there is this.

I read the transcripts of the phone calls made by Brand and Ross. Be aware, they are extremely frank. If you haven’t read them, I suggest you do that before expressing an opinion. Otherwise, how can you have a considered opinion about them?

So, my opinion? I haven’t had the benefit of hearing what Brand and Ross said when they said it on Brand’s radio show, so I may be missing lots of context. All I have to go on are the bald words in the transcripts.

But I think both men are pathetic. If this is what passes for comedy on the radio, then I’m a banana, to adapt Ian Hislop’s famous quotation.

Be that as it may: it’s just one opinion among the many. But if Brand and Ross were still broadcasting on radio and TV in the UK, here’s one less listener and viewer they would have.

And what of the sequence of events and the communication angle?

One thing I felt was that events in what was undoubtedly a crisis were moving very fast indeed, much faster than any effective communication from any of the protagonists and in particular from the BBC.

As anyone who’s ever been involved in crisis communication knows, whenever there’s a communication vacuum from the subject of the crisis, others will rush in to fill that vacuum, which is exactly what happened repeatedly during this week.

So it’s timely that the BBC itself published How to manage a crisis, a useful article by Clarence Mitchell, probably best known for his role as official spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann.

Mitchell nicely summed it all up like this:

[…] Common symptoms for bodies mismanaging a crisis are apologies, where obvious and appropriate, that are still seen to be slow in coming, grudgingly given or issued in stages, despite the rising clamour from stakeholders growing ever louder.

Equally damaging is the appearance that the organisation is being buffeted by events. Worse still, the public perception that its actions are merely reactive, responding to events rather than controlling them.

Yes, things this past week looked exactly like this.

While the debate continues about the BBC and its role as a broadcaster and in society, I’m thinking of what next for Jonathan Ross. Has he blown it entirely? Few would argue that his reputation has taken a massive hit.

Whether that’s terminal or not in relation to a continuing future with the BBC – and possibly any other UK broadcaster – remains to be seen.

Mitchell’s conclusion in his BBC article on crisis management applies equally to Ross:

[…] Reputational crises don’t die away any more, they just get posted online for posterity. That world is here and now and effective crisis management has never been more relevant or valid.

How Ross deals with his own crisis is likely to be a major influence on whether it’s ‘when’ or ‘if’ we see him on the BBC again.

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