Mike Ashley: Does it matter if the public hates you right now?

The Sports Direct founder’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn criticism, but in the scheme of things, will anyone remember?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2020

You know the old normal is truly dead and buried when Mike Ashley issues a public apology. 

The famously pugnacious yet media-averse founder and CEO of Sports Direct (and its new parent company Frasers Group) said sorry this morning for aspects of his company’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, in what may be a first.

His open letter addresses the fact that Frasers Group attempted to keep stores open earlier in the week by categorising itself as an essential provider (it’s not) before initially digging in a series of open emails to the Government.

“Our intentions were only to seek clarity from the Government as to whether we should keep some of our stores open; we would never have acted against their advice [to close high street stores]. In hindsight, our emails to the Government were ill-judged and poorly timed, when they clearly had much greater pressures than ours to deal with. On top of this, our communications to our employees and the public on this was poor,” wrote Ashley in his letter today.

“I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future.”

Many will be cynical about a man who has (admittedly unintentionally) courted such controversy over the years, but when you step back, maybe it’s time to cut him some slack.

As he points out, there has been “no dress rehearsal” for what the country is facing right now, and it’s hard to disbelieve him when he says he’s fighting to save his business. It’s easy from a distance to criticise a decision made under such conditions, even when that decision was clearly wrong.

There’s a broader question of what it means for a business, in a crisis like this, to say the right thing. Some have certainly handled the communications aspect of the crisis better than others. Under ordinary circumstances, you’d expect financial consequences for those that bungled it, as disapproving customers stay away.

These are hardly ordinary circumstances. The public is scared and angry, and it’s clearly not a good idea to get their backs up right now. But on the other hand, no one’s buying anything anyway, and who will actually remember, once matters eventually return to some semblance of normality, who nailed their messaging?

Perhaps what they will remember is who did the right things. Sports Direct has said it will put its considerable transport and logistics capacity at the disposal of the NHS and other key workers. If it backs that up over many months, would that excuse it for its earlier outrage, or its ill-judged emails?

It would be hard to imagine that corporate reputations won’t shift profoundly as a result of what happens over the next months, but we are so far from the dust settling that it’s impossible to know exactly how. 

The good news for companies that haven’t done it well so far is that maybe that means there’s still time to redeem themselves. A good start would be focusing now on how you can help rather than fussing over what the optics are. 

Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images

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