Aiken PR

The Briefing

The Handbook of How Not to Communicate

The Handbook of How Not to Communicate Banner

by Aiken PR


Almost overnight, an established company with a history spanning 180 years on the high seas, watched its reputation crumble, perhaps irreversibly so.

‘This message sent around the world’. Six words that were considered historic back in 1911, when the first global commercial telegram left the New York Times office, bound for a 28,000–mile round trip. The memo, relayed by 16 different operators across four continents, eventually returned to that fateful office 16 and a half minutes later in what was then a record time for a commercial cablegram.

Communication, to put it mildly, has accelerated exponentially in the 111 years since. We’ve gone from telegram to Instagram, thrust into a digital world that can at times be so instantaneous – so all–consuming – it is often difficult to envision a pre–Internet world. Let alone waiting longer than 10 seconds for a message to reach its destination.

Gone too are the days when an organisation operated at arm’s length, choosing only to engage with its publics as part of an outreach campaign, or when called upon in a crisis. Brand communications is now immediate, much like its potential impact upon a company’s reputation, the bedrock for success in an online world where public scrutiny is as intense as it is rigorous.

Traditional media and its one–way communication have given way for a dialogue between business and consumer, one which spans multiple channels and rarely stops for breath.

Particularly within the bustling realm of social media, where there is an expectation for brands to be approachable and responsive in a world that is itself forever evolving. When utilised effectively, brands can engender that all–important sense of trust with messaging that is proactive and authentic. However, any faux paus are not quickly forgotten in the annals of the internet, and their ripple effect can leave lasting damage on a brand’s reputation.

Where once communication was purely transactional, the interaction between companies and customers is now rendered in real–time, as businesses adapt to an increasingly expectant public willing to hold brands accountable on issues of governance, sustainability, and diversity – to name but three – all of which are integral to trust.

In the post–pandemic landscape of 2022, brand trust is front of mind and tip of tongue. Deloitte’s state of the industry report for the next 12 months noted that, of the senior executives surveyed, two–thirds considered the act of building brand trust to be their company’s number one priority, with close to 75% going so far as to say trust was their company’s most valuable asset.

Trust, the report continues, is built through actions that demonstrate a high degree of competence and right intent, resulting in ‘exhibited capability, reliability, transparency, and humanity’. All of which helps determine how an organisation is viewed in the eyes of its publics

And in the current climate of labour shortages and global supply chain stress, the spotlight has been placed squarely on many different organisations, with decisions and, crucially, how those decisions are communicated, directly impacting upon reputation and often share price… for better or worse.

The ramifications go beyond share price, but rather the total erosion of trust, and how an appalling decision can be compounded by appalling communication.

Almost three weeks have lapsed since P&O Ferries sacked 800 staff as part of a cold and seemingly unlawful restructuring plan. Loyal seafarers, some of whom had worked at the firm for decades, were told without warning they were being laid off, and later escorted off the ships by ex–military security guards.

Add to this the fact that P&O delivered the news via Zoom, without first consulting staff, stakeholders, and unions, and you have what can only be described as the handbook of how not to communicate. Almost overnight, an established company with a history spanning 180 years on the high seas, watched its reputation crumble, perhaps irreversibly so, and united society in outrage. The fallout is devastating, the legal battle ongoing.

Another red flag from a brand comms perspective is the corporate rhetoric of DP World, the parent company of P&O Ferries since 2019, whose website features buzzwords in the vein of ‘ethos’, ‘values’ and ‘mission statement’ culminating in a promise to “create a working environment where our workforce feels valued.”

Hollow at best, disingenuous at worst. The issue lies in companies speaking a language that bears little relationship to reality, which only serves to undermine trust in themselves. In the absence of transparency, questions arise over reliability, capability and, in the case of P&O Ferries, humanity.

Trust is the foundation of any meaningful relationship, in both business and in life. Remove that from the equation, and in today’s global village, a brand’s indiscretion will travel around the world a lot faster than a 16–and–a–half–minute telegram.