On Monday 24th October Seán Gallagher probably woke up feeling pretty good. He was, after all, leading in the opinion polls for the Irish presidential election to take place the following Thursday.
His lead was impressive. According to an Ipsos Mori poll in the Irish Times he was on 40% with Labour Party candidate, Michael D Higgins, on 25% and Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness a distant third on 15%.
A few hours later his campaign was in tatters and Michael D. Higgins went on to win the election. In the end Seán Gallagher took just 28.5% of the vote.
So what happened?
On the Monday evening the Irish television channel RTE there was one of the traditional television debates with all the presidential candidates. During the course of the debate Martin McGuinness accused Gallagher of collecting a cheque from a convicted fuel smuggler on behalf of the opposition Fianna Fail party.
At the time Gallagher was a member of the Fianna Fail national executive and had attended a party or reception at which some photographs were taken. Subsequently it appears that he took a copy of a photograph to the fuel smugglers house and, according to the fuel smuggler, was given a cheque for €5,000 for the party. Gallagher struggles to remember what happened.
Nevertheless the implications were made and the suppositions were drawn.
So what went wrong?
Seán Gallagher is an entrepreneur and a judge on the RTE equivalent of Dragon’s Den. He has more than one business and leads a busy life. He is also very much in the public eye. He goes to lots of events and he does lots of things. It would be difficult for him to remember every event he attended and its details. Despite this, an audience member, the chairperson of the debate and Martin McGuinness all attacked him, on several occasions without giving him time to explain.
On his part, Gallagher gave long convoluted answers that left the impression that he was trying to avoid the questions. He part admitted that he may have delivered a photograph and he part admitted that he may have received an envelope. The very fact that his answers were ambiguous condemned him.
Even worse, the following day he was forced to abandon his campaign and his ‘meet the people’ visits in order to trail around the broadcasters to explain his version of events. But the damage was done and the campaign was lost.
What might he have done?
This story had been rattling around for a week before the TV debate and it was posted on Sinn Fein’s website. Seán Gallagher’s campaign team should have identified the potential threat the moment it arose and clarified exactly what had happened. From that point on everyone involved in his campaign should have taken the message out and repeated it continuously. The message should have been clear, simple to understand and unambiguous so that further accusations could not be made.
As it was, different people were giving different accounts of what happened including Mr Gallagher himself. That was a recipe for disaster.
It is interesting to note that the accusations came from the convicted fuel smuggler himself along with Martin McGuinness. Seán Gallagher might have expressed amazement that his integrity was being brought into question by a convicted criminal and a former Provisional IRA leader.
Abandoning his campaign at the last minute was also a flawed move. Difficult that it might have been, he should have remembered that his only audience were the people of Ireland and not the broadcasters who were having so much fun with the controversy.
Instead he allowed himself to be drawn into further confrontation with various broadcasters. Inevitably the story moved on; he found himself having to explain why he had not been clear about what had happened from the very start rather than dealing with the substance of the accusation.
Of course, if he had nothing to hide then his first and most obvious reaction should have been to tell McGuinness to prove it or shut up. Such a show of confidence would have killed the story dead.
See a You Tube clip entitled ‘Sean Gallagher just can’t tell the truth’ from an interview the day after the debate.
Communications is a complex business. For some people it is not something they spend too much time worrying about. They plod through life communicating without any real concern about the impact of their communications.
Others, however, need to be more careful if they are to be taken seriously.
A well known polling agency undertakes a monthly opinion poll of business leaders. They ask important questions about perceptions, opinions and views. As with all polling the result of the survey is only as good as the accuracy of the questions being asked.
The most recent poll conducted this month was asking questions about the likely impact on stakeholders. The problem was that they didn’t define stakeholders, nor did they make it clear in the question which stakeholders they were asking about.
Stakeholders, if you have looked at our paper on ‘Identifying Stakeholders’, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes both internal and external.
A stakeholder can be a primary stakeholder without whom the company could not survive. A good example of an external stakeholder might be a customer. An internal stakeholder might well be your employees.
Or you might be more concerned with secondary stakeholders who can have huge influences on your business. The banks would rate government and its agencies such as the Financial Services Ombudsman to be very important secondary stakeholders at the present time.
When considering your stakeholders it is possible to group them into large groups, such as ‘Suppliers’. But suppliers can cover a multitude of different people who interact with your organisation in different ways. Suppliers could be contractors or consultants who work closely with part of the company; or they could be suppliers of the materials needed to conduct your business. In the latter case it could be as broad as electricity companies providing power through to stationary suppliers providing your photocopying paper.
In each case the relationship has subtle differences. So when the survey of business leaders asked whether they thought a particular action was good for stakeholders or not, it left a lot to be desired.
If they meant that the action was good for the directors, senior executives and shareholders of the company then the answer was an unambiguous yes. If the stakeholders concerned were the customers and suppliers then the answer was an unequivocal NO!
So which stakeholders did they mean? They didn’t say. Which means that the whole survey was open to dispute. As the saying goes, rubbish in, rubbish out.
Last week was a prime example of the way in which crisis communications is having to become faster and smarter when a crisis occurs.
For four days last week the Research In Motion (RIM) Blackberry system collapsed across the world. The problems started on Monday 10th October. In the London based business newspaper, City A.M., on 12th October editor Allister Heath was criticising Blackberry for their slow response to the crisis. This is what he had to say:
‘What’s wrong with Blackberry? I am a heavy user, a genuine addict, which means that I – together with millions of others – have been hugely inconvenienced by the system’s collapse during the past two days To add insult to injury, it came back up on Monday night, just to implode again yesterday. Instead of pro-actively explaining what was happening, Blackberry’s owners, Research in Motion, waited for hours before issuing a statement; for a company that makes mobile phones, its inability to communicate with its users has been astonishing to behold.’
Poor Blackberry. Their system had a catastrophic failure and within hours the editor of a London business newspaper was squealing as though the end of the world had come about.
It does neatly demonstrate the way in which the world has become so immediate. People want things now, not yesterday or even several hours ago. They want explanations and they want them now.
To a point Allister Heath is correct. Blackberry has built its reputation on providing ‘reliable real time communications around the world’. This is the phrase that co CEO of RIM, Mike Lazaridis, used in his videoed apology on Wednesday 13th October.
Lazaridis went on to say that “We did not deliver on that goal this week” and “We have let many of you down. You expect better from us and I expect better from us”.
Lazaridis looked positively distraught in the You Tube video and he spoke in a very wooden manner, obviously reading from a teleprompter. The performance may just about have done the job, but it was barely convincing.
Alas, this is not his first clumsy outing in front of the cameras this year. In April he stopped an interview with BBC reporter Rory Cellan-Jones when he was asked about security issues in the Middle East. In the interview he looks unprepared, even surprised at the question despite its topical nature at the time.
So what should and could RIM have been doing? Well none of it is rocket science.
As a major telecommunications company with around 50 million users across the world they must have an operations room which monitors all traffic. As soon as they realised they had a major problem, which must have been in minutes rather than hours, they should have gone into crisis mode.
That means wheeling out a media savvy spokesperson to present a holding statement, apologise for the inconvenience being caused and answer media questions – even if the answer was ‘we don’t know but as soon as we find out we will let you know’.
If you decide that you need to use the CEO then there has to be a very good reason. It became inevitable by Wednesday because RIM had not reacted quickly in the early stages of the crisis. But by Wednesday, three days in to the crisis, the apology seemed too little too late.
If you decide to use your CEO then also make sure that he has had some crisis media training. Rather than look as though he is about to jump off a cliff he has to appear concerned about the effect on the individual but he should also look as though he is in control.
The April incident suggests that there is no pre-interview planning or preparation taking place at RIM. As a minimum they should have identified every possible issue that was going to come up and then prepare an appropriate response (what we call ‘lines to take’).
Finally, with a $4.2 billion turnover and corporate reputation to protect they should have the very best of corporate communications departments, a crisis plan and a back up PR agency to support them.
Winging it in the way that they appeared to do it last week simply will not work in this world of instant satiation.
There are two words that can strike instant terror into the hearts of many corporate employees when uttered by management – strategic review.
The words strategic review are also closely associated with that other dread word – change.
From an employee’s point of view all of these words mean disruption in their normal daily routine, the likelihood of having to explain why their job is worth keeping and worst of all the possibility of redundancy.
A good manager will try to understand what their team is feeling.
They know that it will involve more meetings where difficult questions are asked. There is a strong possibility that strangers (management consultants) will be brought in to ‘poke’ into the way in which the team works. The review could well mean a change of work practice, a new job description and a moving around of the office.
They all know that some people will be leaving and they will start worrying that they may be one of them. That in turn leads to an overactive rumour mill, a reduction in productivity, a fall in morale and, in some cases, a refusal to cooperate.
Regrettably many managers make matters worse by failing to understand their teams. The single most common problem is a failure to communicate what is happening and why. Employees left in the dark will always think the worst and too much of their time will be taken up with ill informed speculation at a time when managers need them to be at their most productive.
That is why a change communications plan is so important. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Indeed it can’t be perfect because in any strategic review there will be all sorts of new challenges emerging; that, after all, is the purpose of a strategic review.
The most important element of a change communications plan is to keep it as personal as possible. Too many managers rely on newsletters and intranet communications to get across their message. Yes, they are important tools and should be part of the campaign, but they should never replace the face to face contact.
The very best change communications I have experienced happened in a diverse company where the headquarters staff used video conferencing to talk to managers across multiple sites and then those managers spoke to their staff in small teams where any question could be asked. The face to face communication was vital.
The meetings weren’t pre-planned or at set times. They happened when there was a need to communicate something new and important. In between there were other meetings that allowed the employees to express and discuss their concerns.
The approach taken was in stark contrast to the bunker mentality that some managers display as they get deeper into change. The inevitable still happened. Teams were broken up, people were moved and some lost their jobs, but throughout the process they knew what was happening and why.