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Three crisis management lessons from the recent resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the USA

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

Following the recent resignation of the UK's ambassador to the USA, Charlie discusses what crisis management lessons we can learn from the incident.

This week the resignation of the British Ambassador to the USA caught my eye as an interesting news story. Sir Kim Darroch, an extremely senior UK diplomat, resigned after a number of emails were published which showed a very unflattering picture of the Trump administration. In emails leaked from Washington, he described the Trump administration as 'inept and chaotic'. Once the emails were pointed out to Trump, Sir Kim Darroch received the full force of a Trump Twitter rant and was described as a 'really stupid guy', amongst other things. Trump said his administration would not work with Sir Kim Darroch, so he had no choice but to resign.

The following are crisis management lessons for us to learn from this incident:

1. Guard zealously embarrassing information

In this bulletin, and in the Managing and Preparing for Cyber Incidents course, I have talked about conducting an inventory of all the information your organisation holds. One of the things you should consider as part of this inventory, is what the most embarrassing piece of information you hold is. In Sir Kim Darroch’s case, his job was to report back on how he viewed the Trump administration, as a key part of his diplomatic role, so his emails were honest and unflattering of the administration. Those in the UK Civil Service should have recognised that if offensive comments about one of our closest allies were leaked it would strain the relationship. President Trump, as we all know, is extremely thin-skinned and takes any criticism of himself and his administration very personally. They should have known that he would react very strongly if critical information about competence was leaked, and that there would be consequences for the ambassador. They should have taken extra precaution to protect the information from either hackers or, as the BBC website states, a leaker. If you have embarrassing information held within your organisation, either secure it very well or destroy it.

2. Understand power relationships

The UK would like to think of the USA as their bestie, and that we have a relationship of equals. I see our relationship with the USA in playground terms; the USA is the big, tough cool kid who is king of the playground, and the UK hangs around with the big kid, as we have just fallen out with our other groups of friends and don’t have many others. The big kid is happy for us to hang out with them for as long as it suits him and he also knows that we will go along with whatever he says or tells us to do, as we don’t want to fall out with him. He can abuse us or make us do something we don’t want to do, as we don’t want to lose the one friendship we have. All the other kids also want to hang out with him, so he doesn’t care if he loses us. Trump is happy to have all the pomp and ceremony laid on as part of the state visit to meet the Queen, but he was not going to ignore some unflattering emails from a British Ambassador and was very happy to make his position untenable, forcing Sir Kim Darroch to resign. In the same way, if we are a large organisation who has a key supplier like Salesforce, the power in the relationship is with Salesforce, the larger more powerful company, not with you as their customer.

3. Don’t expect people to do the right thing in an incident

An ambassador is appointed by the country it serves, not the country they work in. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, pledged their support to Sir Kim Darroch, and said that the US President didn’t have a veto on who was appointed to the British Ambassador post. When asked 6 times in a debate this week, Boris Johnson avoided the question on whether he would support the ambassador if he was the Prime Minister. I suspect that he didn’t want to show support and further enrage Trump, and would rather sacrifice the ambassador than jeopardise his relationship with Trump. In an incident, don’t always expect people to do the right thing and be very aware that they may act in their own self-interest, which may be contrary to the interest of your organisation or could make the situation worse.

We will see if there is any lasting fallout from this incident or whether it will blow over and be forgotten quickly, but there are always lessons to be learnt from other’s misfortune!

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Three crisis management lessons from the recent resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the USA

Following the recent resignation of the UK's ambassador to the USA, Charlie discusses what crisis management lessons we can learn from the incident.

12 July 2019

“Great 'personal' commentary/stories provided by the speaker [James McAlister] that really brought the slides to life.”

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University College London
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