Who’s next for the gaffe Hall of Fame?

Every year at least one previously well-respected major brand takes an almighty tumble in the reputation stakes.

More often than not the crisis comes about because of a product or service problem, accident or even the persistent poor handling of some relatively minor issue until it has spiralled into a much bigger one.

Generally speaking the company’s leadership and valiant PR chief leap into action to respond and reduce the impact of the crisis, keeping the organisation from teetering over the precipice.

However sometimes the organisation is given an almighty shove off the cliff face of crisis by the very person supposed to be keeping it back from the edge: its’ CEO.

Remember the photos of BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward yachting around the Isle of Wight whilst thousands of tons of BP oil spilled out into the Gulf of Mexico; or his comment in the middle of the crisis that he would “like his life back.”?

Before the sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 2010, Hayward’s blunt and honest style was judged to be an asset after the Lord Browne era. But once he was facing the media on a daily basis regarding BP’s clean-up efforts, his off-the-cuff style became something of a liability. BP’s reputation and value plumeted even further, something that is taking the company years to recover from and unsurprisingly Tony Hayward soon got his wish for his life back.

The gaffe-prone leader Hall of Fame is a crowded room. In 2003, Matt Barrett, the Barclays chief executive, suggested that consumers should stay clear of his company’s product, the Barclaycard, because it was so expensive. Giving evidence to a panel of MPs, he admitted he would not use one himself. : “I do not borrow on credit cards. I have four young children. I give them advice not to pile up debts on their credit cards.”

And asked in an interview in 2001 to clarify the target market for the Topman clothing chain, the firm’s brand director, David Shepherd, replied: “Hooligans or whatever.” He went on: “Very few of our customers have to wear suits for work. They’ll be for his first interview or first court case.”

Last year the BBC came under serious fire over the cancelled Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Saville. Ultimately a thorough review indicated there had been no cover-up, but sadly this all came after Director General Sir George “I know nothing” Entwhistle had managed to inflame the situation further with his extraordinary comments suggesting that he had absolutely no curiosity about anything going on in the organisation he purported to run.

Probably the most famous example though of a business leader whose personal actions caused considerable damage to his business was Gerald Ratner, former boss of Ratner’s Jewellery.

Faced with doing a speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991, Gerald Ratner was worried about his reputation of not being an entertaining or amusing speaker. So he decided to adlib a little joke about the products his firm sold, hoping it would endear him to the guests:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “Because it’s total crap”.

For good measure, he added that his stores’ earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long”.

He wiped £500m off the valuation of his company, overnight.

In an interview in 2007 he confessed that, nineteen years on, it still haunted him. ‘Doing a Ratner’ remains a part of business legend and an often-told cautionary tale. He said: “In 2006 a book was published called History’s Worst Decisions. Alongside Nero burning Rome to the ground, Eve eating the apple, and the choice not to install a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean, was (the) speech that I made…”

“Despite the fact that I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t do anything illegal and I didn’t even say anything that I hadn’t said before, that speech caused me to lose my business, my reputation and my fortune.”

Ratner confessed that it hurts that he is still known as ‘Mr Crapner’.

Whilst these examples are on the high profile end of the spectrum, every day there are probably hundreds of well-meaning leaders cheerfully and innocently scuppering their businesses by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

No one is perfect. Almost every leader I’ve worked for has dropped a clanger at some point or other, but most have been relatively minor because the individual concerned understood and respected their power of office and either stuck closely and effectively to the message we’d created, or were well-prepared and self-aware enough to be able to ‘freestyle’ in relative safety.

With 24 hour global and social media just waiting to pick up on every slip and trip there’s really nowhere to hide for a gaffe-prone leader these days, no matter what kind of organisation they run.

And so, with the alarming regularity of these CEO-led corporate suicide missions we are simply left to wonder who 2013’s Mr Crapner will turn out to be…

Happy New Year!