There is a new entry in to the list of company bosses who have seen off-the-cuff and unguarded comments spectacularly backfire.
Tesco Chairman John Allan now finds himself in the company of people like Gerald Ratner, Tony Hayward and Tim Hunt, after his comments led to criticism from politicians and threats to boycott his stores.
His gaffe came in a speech at a Retail Week Live conference last week.
Speaking the day after International Women’s Day, Mr Allan said white men are now an ‘endangered species’ in top business jobs and claimed men have to work twice as hard to reach the top position due to the rise in opportunities for females and people from ethnic backgrounds.
Mr Allan, who is one of eight white men on the 11 strong Tesco board, said: “If you are female and from an ethnic background and preferably both then you are in an extremely propitious period.
“For a thousand years men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future I think.
“If you are a white male – tough – you are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
Mr Allan later said his comments had been intended to be ‘humorous’ and said he had used a ‘rather colourful turn of speech’. He also sought to clarify his comments in a brief statement on the Tesco website, which offered little by way of an apology.
But the damage had been done. Here are how the newspapers reported it:
Tesco boss slammed after claiming white men are endangered species in business The Sun
Call for Tesco boycott after supermarket’s chairman claimed white men were becoming an ‘endangered species’ in British boardrooms Daily Mail
People boycott Tesco after chairman says ‘white men have to work twice as hard’ than minority women Metro
Labour MP Yvette Cooper was among those who led the criticism on social media.
Says the man who chairs a board of eleven, eight of whom are white men.....!!! No words. https://t.co/ZHUtl1aCsM— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) March 10, 2017
As Mr Allan is now finding out, off-the-cuff comments, whether they are a casual passing remark or a misguided attempt to add humour to a speech, can be hugely damaging and can trigger a crisis media management situation.
And with the rise of social media giving almost anyone with a smartphone and a decent connection the chance to be a journalist, that crisis can start almost immediately.
So what can comms teams do when they find themselves in this situation?
1) Be prepared –make sure you have a crisis plan in place because if your boss makes any remarks like this one you will find yourself in crisis mode.
2) Diary events –make sure you know where and when your senior leaders will be speaking, even if there is not expected to be any media present.
3) Practice – Ask your executive team to run through any public statements they will be making and suggest changes if necessary.
4) Media training – make sure your bosses have had media training and presentations training. It may prevent them making the comments in the first place. If not, they will need the skills to handle the media afterwards.
5) Act quickly – as in any crisis media management situation, get your messages out quickly. Even if your initial statements are short and lack detail they will at least show you are in control.
6) Apologise – be honest and admit when a mistake has been made and, unlike Tesco, start the response by saying ‘sorry’.
Of course, not all of these tips will prevent negative headlines, but they will help comms teams take control of the story and, as Tesco would say, ‘every little helps’.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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