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Reputation damage – will they never learn?

January 10, 2018

Listening to David Davis trying to clarify what he had said on TV last month reminded me that lessons about audiences and messaging have perhaps not been learnt. It is over 25 years since Gerald Ratner’s High street jewellery chain was brought down by careless talk, so for younger readers it is worth recalling the basic lessons which David Davis has clearly forgotten.

Ratner was speaking to an audience of financial journalists about his company’s excellent sales figures, it was after lunch when he incautiously attributed his profitability to the fact that his products were ‘crap’. While this went down well with hardened city hacks, it wound up in the tabloids where Ratner’s customers naturally sensed they were being exploited. Within weeks sales plummeted and the rest is history. Ratner had failed to appreciate that sentiments aimed at one audience cannot be prevented from reaching others where interpretation is often more hostile.

Now back to David Davis at his TV interview in December, barely 48 hours after the Brexit deal had been signed in Brussels. Playing to a Sunday lunchtime domestic audience Davis was keen to point out that this agreement signed on Friday was not legally binding and was only a signal of intent. Why would he do this? He was addressing an audience not only of middle- Englanders who watch Sunday lunchtime TV, but also trying to please the Brexit ultras in his own party, many of whom like Michael Gove, had already gone on record to claim the deal could be undone if people didn’t like it.

In Europe the message did not go down well, Dutch and German politicians took the message that the UK was not playing with a straight bat, and inevitably signalled that this was not going to augur well for negotiations about future trade. Davis’s ‘unhelpful’ comments were quoted back to him by Nick Ferrari on LBC at which point Davis tried to claim that he had been misquoted. Davis then took to the Commons to clarify his position realising that in trying to appease Brexit ultras he had threatened the credibility of the UK with Brussels. One might have thought that the government had learnt a lesson from the preceding week: the UK tried to keep Belfast out of the loop preferring to work with Dublin, right up to the point where Belfast found out.

At the time of writing I have been reading an account of Luther and the impact his work had on the Catholic Church in the early sixteenth century. An attempt to reconcile the theological stance of Lutherans with the traditional Catholic Church in 1530 resulted in the Augsberg Confession. This was a statement of agreement which not only provided us with word ‘protestant’, but was ‘the result of many compromises and was purposely inexact in many places’. Historians have commented on the similarities between the early sixteenth and twenty-first centuries, specifically social impacts of both printing press and the Internet, but obfuscation and compromise are also common features.

The challenge in a world of 24 hour rolling news is to recognise that messages intended for one audience will inevitably reach another. The David Davis debacle shows that this lesson has still not been learnt. Sentiments for a domestic audience channelled through national media, will be relayed to an international one, especially on such a sensitive topic as Brexit. Given all the diplomacy exhibited by Davis to date his attempt to appease a domestic audience so soon after an international agreement shows how much the UK capitulated to Brussels. Politics aside, the lessons of Ratner, and Augsberg, must be learnt.

Communicating forward plans to all audiences requires careful thought, drawing on both these historic lessons and views on future strategy, in various scenarios, to guide us towards robust decisions.

Written by Garry Honey, CEO, Chiron Reputation Risk and SAMI Associate. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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