Thursday, 7 July 2011

An Insurance Against Stupidity

Only the brave or the stupid would say the News of the World journalists who hacked phones, the MPs who overclaimed expenses, or the FIFA officials who took bribes weren't at fault.

I'm neither brave or stupid but, without minimising the actions of those who are proven to break the law in a work context, it's the culture of the organisation which allows and even encourages people's behaviour.

What is emerging from the soon-to-be-defunct News of the World is a systematic culture of hacking over a number of years. What we hear about the MPs' scandal is that the expenses office positively encouraged people to put in claims of a dubious nature to compensate for smaller increases in their 'official' salary*. And FIFA has appeared to be the worst kind of cartel for many years, with its secretive voting and shady deal-making. It's no wonder that bad apples thrive in these kind of environments. Or, to be charitable particularly in the case of some MPs, even good apples can lose their moral compass when accepted practice and even their monitors are encouraging dubious practices.

In my current organisation, my modest travel expenses are triple-checked and Google-mapped before being signed off. And I'll be sure to receive a ticking off for minor crimes such as forgetting to state whether I returned to the office or went home at the end of an afternoon meeting. But I well recall from day one of my work experience on my local newspaper that the daily visits to sniff out stories from emergency service workers were really just a thinly-disguised way of boosting the monthly expenses (or 'eckys') total.

So how can organisations guard against such fatal blows to their reputation as their people ending up in jail? Lesson one of any crisis communications course is to identify, and address, the issues that could fatally undermine your business - and that is no under-statement, given that a 168-year institution such as the News of the World can be brought down (as its current brand) in a matter of days.

You see, it's my guess that the head of communications at the News of the World, the Houses of Parliament, and FIFA don't carry sufficient influence in their organisations to stop such acts of foolishness. Far from being a 'spin doctor', an effective comms lead will sit at a level where they can put their hand up and say 'Stop This' when inward-looking directors are focusing solely on the bottom line. In this respect, a good PR should bring a dose of objective reality to unacceptable actions - an insurance against stupidity, if you will.

At a time when the communications field is striving to prove its worth through measurable impact on profit or behaviour, it's a timely reminder that keeping our employers' names out of the headlines for the wrong reasons is just as important. So the next time your Chief Executive questions why they need a 'press officer' at senior level, give them a four-letter word - #notw.

*As an aside, I do believe our MPs are under-paid. How can we hope to have the very best quality elected representatives if we're not going to pay them a salary which reflects the importance of their decision-making and recognises that, in many cases, we're asking them to live away from their family most of the week?

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