MT Round-table: Managing reputations after the age of spin

Fast-developing natural and manmade disasters coupled with the rise of social media mean companies can no longer easily spin their way out of trouble when a crisis hits. So how do top PR professionals make sure their message is the one that gets listened to?

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Matthew Gwyther: There's growing evidence that PR is on the up. It's winning an increased share of the overall marketing spend at the expense of older school disciplines such as advertising. We've come a long way from the disapproving days when Malcolm Muggeridge wrote off PR as 'organised lying'. We want to look at how your world works and how hugely important corporate reputation management has become.

Andrew Gowers: I was editor of the Financial Times before becoming head of media relations at Lehman Brothers and then BP. Going into business communications fulfilled a vague aspiration to get off the spectators' bench and onto the field: explain the world to businesses, but also to explain what a particular business does to the world. At Lehman I realised you could also make an impact explaining the company to itself. In that sort of business, which is very bottom-line focused, finding the broader story, what makes you different from your competitors, is a very interesting challenge. It's something companies are feeling their way to getting more systematic about.

Matthew Gwyther: Felicity, Stuart Rose, the recently retired M&S boss, was someone who, when he walked into a branch, had people behind the till coming up and asking for his autograph. He got an incredibly good press. How did you manage that?

Felicity Howard-Allen: I like to think we looked like swans but really you couldn't see all the paddling underneath. It's easy to forget how wounded M&S was between 2002 and 2004 - that's why Philip Green turned up with an indicative bid. There were times when things didn't feel so peachy because there are such high expectations surrounding M&S. Every business has its own dynamic but M&S was extreme. It was regarded as a social commentator across a wide spectrum of issues and that puts a lot of pressure on the business.

Matthew Gwyther: Simon, to put it mildly, the past six months haven't been so peachy for you as communications director at Heathrow.

Simon Baugh: I've been at BAA for nearly five years now. In that time, we've had nearly every problem imaginable: a plane crash, terror alerts, bomb plots, a fog that closed the airport for a week, and then the awful snow last Christmas. I've noticed that much has changed in how we respond to the crises. Five years ago social media wasn't something you'd consider. But when the volcanic ash cloud hit a year ago we were using Twitter to send advice to stranded passengers at three in the morning. The media has become 24 hours now - and you need the resources in an organisation to manage that, along with the expertise. The age of spin is dead really - with the rise of social media you have no choice but to be authentic and transparent.

Nick Smith: I think that's what makes the job fascinating. As a career marketer, I have seen it go from just doing proactive PR to a role that is central to the definition of strategy.

Julia Hobsbawm: I now do PR for my own business. When I first started my business, we had absolutely horrific PR which was entirely self-inflicted - 'Sun sets on Queen of Spin' was a memorable verdict on me at the time. Anyone who has children knows that how you see yourself as a parent ain't how your kids see you. As a business, I feel it's very important to be flexible; how you are really perceived tells you about your market and about your consumers.

Simon Lewis: I can't stress enough how looking after your boss's reputation is a highly personal role. Twice in my career I've read newspaper headlines about people I worked for, saying: 'X is a dead man walking.' It's a very unusual role but also a fantastic privilege. When I worked for Number 10, I found the level of tolerance a political leader has towards press intrusion and coverage is unlike anything you could conceive of in the corporate world. Days of intense media coverage began to feel like any other day in the office for me.

Matthew Gwyther: Do you think a lot of people would rather get on with running their businesses out of the public eye? With an organisation such as Vodafone, where you also worked, surely that's an impossibility?

Simon Lewis: Chief executives in well-run companies understand that now. At Vodafone 20% of Arun (Sarin)'s diary would be taken up with communications. Most chief execs would say that's the way it is now.

Julia Hobsbawm: There has been a perpetual antipathy between public relations and journalism but I don't see the divide. Essentially they are both informationists. But to state the bleeding obvious, PR continues to have a reputation problem. Even though spin is dead there is an antipathy towards it. That's the bad news. The good news is that everyone else is in the age of cynicism. Everybody's got the camera swivelling towards them or a microphone waiting to pick up their errors - there's nowhere to hide.

Stephen Pain: To go back to social media, it seems to me the difficulty in all of this is that it's less about what you say now, than what others say about you. Who are the influencers now?

Andrew Gowers: Take the example of Lehman Brothers. As the numbers looked very bad and the black hole opened up in June 2008, the management was in denial about the scale of the problem. They didn't reveal to anybody what they were really thinking. So communications were blank which led to a hailstorm of rumours. There was no communication strategy, because there was no survival strategy for the firm. Therefore, the end was very swift.

Matthew Gwyther: So your board were not listening to you at all? Or did they just not like what you had to say?

Andrew Gowers: The culture in Lehman in New York was that the top guy could not be told things he was not going to like. Therefore whatever advice one might offer as communications chief would not necessarily reach him.

Matthew Gwyther: Andrew, would you argue that what was meted out to BP over the Gulf of Mexico leak was less than fair?

Andrew Gowers: I will not go there. The fact was that it was a huge story. At the height of the crisis 10,000 media stories were being generated about the oil spill a day in the US. It was just over a quarter of all us media coverage and it was overwhelming.

Matthew Gwyther: Simon, what's it like trying to persuade a prime minister?

Simon Lewis: When dealing with a prime minister you have to be able to say: 'You may think that, but I can tell you that is not how other people will see it.' The key thing you need is trust, because then it's easier to communicate the good and bad news. You've also got to retain a degree of objectivity, though, which is a real challenge.

Stephen Pain: I agree with that principle. You're an internal consultant and an employee at the same time. You have to be loyal to the business, but still have that detachment which allows you to take an objective view.

Matthew Gwyther: How difficult is it to do your job if you don't feel emotionally engaged with the organisation and the message you're supposed to be delivering?

Simon Baugh: Heathrow is a company where a lot of the people who work there are extremely loyal and proud to work there. But it's very difficult when you get into a situation where you haven't performed to the public's expectations to say to the whole organisation: 'Actually, we need to hold our hands up and say we haven't performed well enough and we take some responsibility for that.' After the snow I still believe that was the right advice to give. But there were a lot more senior people who felt the line of communication should have been to defend the company by pointing out that we'd delivered what we'd agreed with airlines and regulators beforehand.

Simon Lewis: It's just like the old British Gas, where the mantra was 'you never apologise'. In the early 1990s the view was if you got something wrong and apologised, it showed weakness. I know it has changed now but 15 years ago it was essential that you never apologised.

Nick Smith: Yes, don't worry, it'll blow over.

Matthew Gwyther: Simon, would you have advised Bob Diamond, in front of the select committee, to say, 'the time for apologising is over' if you had been on his shoulder earlier?

Simon Lewis: The important thing to bear in mind is people in leadership positions have to communicate authentically. If that is what he felt, I think that's fine. There is nothing worse than seeing people being overmanufactured.

Julia Hobsbawm: It's not always good to overshare everything. The more transparent you are the more you invite difficulties.

Simon Lewis: You cannot do that in an adversarial environment. In politics, journalists essentially want to find out which government department has got it wrong. Therefore, the mindset on both sides is completely different from the mindset that says: 'Will you help me understand or can you explain?' From a personal observation, you end up in a dance of death whereby you are constantly trying to subvert each other, starting from an adversarial basis. My point about companies in crisis is that they start to experience that for the first time themselves and find it very difficult to comprehend because they haven't been used to it.

Simon Baugh: PRs are generally seen as people who are out there being advocates for the company, and that is an important part of the job. But I think more importantly it's being able to advise leaders within business through the lens of critical stakeholders and people who form your reputation out there. It's even more vital for companies that are seen as a national institution, like M&S.

Nick Smith: Yes. I think reputational management should be aimed at all audiences, including internal staff. Your role isn't just about managing damage limitation, it's about proactively building trust in that enterprise.

Matthew Gwyther: Let's talk about skills. What qualities do the next generation of PRs need to maintain a company's reputation?

Felicity Howard-Allen: Real passion for everything that's being communicated in any form. If somebody is not on Facebook, Twitter, then I probably am not going to be talking to them. Then, probably something around intellectual rigour, an appetite for investigation and coping with lots of facts and figures.

Stephen Pain: Someone who can build relationships within the business. Being able to see the bigger picture and applying some intellectual rigour to it. The blindingly obvious qualities are that they can communicate quite well, succinctly and can write well.

Andrew Gowers: I looked for people who were intellectually quick. The best people I had working for me were those who could swiftly demonstrate where they could make a difference; rather than simply taking orders.

Nick Smith: The ability to distil down to what's going to be most compelling and most appealing to the wider range of audiences.

Julia Hobsbawm: The workers of tomorrow need to be global in outlook, language and experience. They need to be multimedia and know every form of technology. They need to know how to network and make good conversation. If you cannot communicate, what are you doing in the communications business?

Simon Lewis: Your second and third points are slightly at odds with each other: being highly skilled at the new technologies, against having what you might describe as the old-fashioned virtues of communications. If you're very good at two, you may not have the time or the desire to think of three.

Julia Hobsbawm: Yes, but although many of the young are technologically savvy, they can lack face-to-face communication skills.

Matthew Gwyther: Should a PR take sole responsibility for a company's reputation?

Andrew Gowers: Despite the improvement in PR's reputation, there is maybe a negative perception that the cavalry are brought in when it is too late. You are already in crisis, send for company x. Actually there is so much more companies can do, not to make themselves crisis proof but at least to check their vulnerabilities in the reputational area and to act on them.

Simon Baugh: Communications people get a little nervous because they're worried they'll be blamed entirely if things go wrong. Actually the reputation of the company is going to be based on a hell of a lot more than what that individual does.

To read the entire discussion, which contains many other subject threads, go to


  • Matthew Gwyther - Editor, MT
  • Stephen Pain - VP, global communications, Unilever (Most Admired Company 2010)
  • Andrew Gowers - Head of media relations, BP (until Nov 2010) and formerly co-head of corporate comms, Lehman Brothers
  • Julia Hobsbawn - Founder, Editorial Intelligence
  • Felicity Howard-Allen - Client services director, Hill and Knowlton (formerly director of comms, Marks and Spencer)
  • Simon Lewis - Chief executive, Association for Financial Markets in Europe and formerly PM Gordon Brown's spokesman
  • Simon Baugh - Airport communication director, Heathrow, BAA
  • Nick Smith - Global managing director, Marketing Transformation, Accenture

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