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Recovering Business Reputation after a Scandal

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol

This week Charlie discusses the lessons learned from media scandals and how businesses should deal with similar incidents.

I thought this week I would comment on an item in the news. The lead item in this lunchtime’s news (Monday 16th March) was the Police Watchdog investigation into alleged corruption in the Metropolitan Police, including claims it covered up child sex offences because of the involvement of police officers and MPs. I thought for this week’s blog I would read through the report by Alexis Jay OBE titled “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham”. I always think that reading any report into an incident, even into such horrific events as which occurred in Rotherham, there are lessons for us business continuity people to learn. It is part of our role to prevent incidents happening but they will, in spite of this, continue to happen. Once a major incident has happened, if something good is to come out of it, we should learn the lessons to ensure that they don’t happen again. Whether we actually learn the lessons from incidents is perhaps a blog for another day!

The opening sentence to the report makes sober reading. “No one knows the true scale of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years. Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1400 children were sexually exploited over the full inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013”. The sheer number of children involved is horrific. The report outlines events which are not historical, rather they are very recent and may still be going on today. For me, the biggest lesson to be learned is; why, if lots of people knew that child abuse was going on, did nobody do anything about it?

In her report, Professor Jay says that there have been reports known to the Police and the Council in 2002, 2003 and 2006, which “could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham”. There were a number of reasons the reports were not acted upon. The data in the first report was not believed and for the second two reports the information was ignored. As the perpetrators were Asian men, mostly of Pakistani-British origin, the issue of political correctness and not wanting to be seen as racist meant that “some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away”. This unwillingness of wanting to believe the facts is not uncommon in the post incident reports, and I think is one of the key lessons to be learned from this incident.

I recently, as part of my reading for my PhD, read a paper by David Wicks in 2001 entitled “Institutionalized Mindsets of Invulnerability: Differentiated Institutional Fields and the Antecedents of Organizational Crisis”. In the paper, he talked about the explosion at the Westray mine in Nova Scotia on 8th May 1992 which killed all 26 men working underground in the mine. The mine was a disaster waiting to happen and this was even recognised by the miners, but there was a lot of vested interest which lead to them all ignoring the warning signs. It was a depressed area and the miners needed their jobs as there were not many opportunities elsewhere. Due to lack of investment, the owners cut corners on safety. Inspections were not carried out properly and the Government wanted the mine to succeed, as this was an area of depravation. Everybody knew that a disaster was likely to happen but ignored it, almost as a collective, and put their “heads in the sand” with tragic consequences.

I hope as business continuity people, we are not sitting ignoring as big a disaster as this. Are there risks or “accidents waiting to happen”, that due to budgetary constraints, are not escalated or just put in the ‘too difficult pile’, and are being ignored in your organisation? If an incident took place, could you put your hand on your heart and say you did everything reasonable to escalate or manage the risk, or did you turn a blind eye as the officials did in these cases?

My second learning point from Rotherham, is how do you rehabilitate the image of the town and its people? If you are a Pakistani-British man who lives in Rotherham, does the stigma of what others did always affect you? When organisations have incidents, in which they are seen to be the perpetrator, or the guilty party, they need good staff to turn around the organisation. If you were a social worker would you want to work for Rotherham Council, or would you feel that having worked there it would always be seen by future employers as a reason not to employ you, even if you were not there during the period of the event? I am not sure you can put a plan in place in advance for rehabilitating an organisation after an event. Major incidents can cause organisations to fail and then disappear or they are rebranded and changed in format to avoid the stigma of their previous brand. In Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, the Government has sent in officials to turn around the council, but as far as I know they have not rebranded it. They also have a banner on the front page of the council website saying “Helpline for victims and survivors of sexual exploitation”, so the council is still some way from putting this incident behind them.

As business continuity people, if we can prevent incidents from happening by identifying them early, then this is always preferable than to manage them once they have taken place. Where there is reluctance from an organisation to recognise an incident, this might take personal courage and persuasion to deal with a potential incident that the organisation doesn’t want to know about.

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