Pull up to the Bumper

Gerald Ratner is perhaps the most famous casualty of how your words can come back to haunt you.  The former CEO of jewellery chain Ratners famously describing the products they sold as “total crap” whilst speaking to the Institute of Directors annual conference in 1991.  The media went for him and his fall from grace was quick.

Wind forward to 2012 and step forward Chairman of London mini-cab company Addison Lee – John Griffiths, who has whipped up a storm after using inflammatory language about London cyclists in the “in car” magazine they publish called “Add Lib” (read the story here).  This time, social media played the role of the traditional media and within twenty four hours, the backlash has been significant. 

Looking back, when people started to talk about web 2.0 and how it would put the web back in the hands of the people, from the big corporations, I’m not sure if we all really knew on what scale that would happen.  Now we’re here, you can see exactly how.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Griffiths, clearly underestimated the impact of his words and the unified nature of the cycling community.  Twitter literally exploded with outraged cyclists, many of whom happened to be Addison Lee’s customers at the Corporates within which they work.  A hashtag was started #boycottaddisonlee, where you can see the impact of the story – one Twitter follower alone who is responsible for £100K a year of bookings to Addison Lee claiming that they’ve closed their account with the company.  All the nationals picked up the story, if Addison Lee were smart they would have realised that The Times had only weeks before run a cycle safety campaign called “CycleSafe,”  so any inflammatory words would put a journalist straight to work.  The five hundred of so cyclists that are intending to stage a “die in” outside Addison Lee’s HQ won’t do the Corporate image any good either and throw more wood on the fire.

Damage Limitation

As you can imagine, the PR damage limitation machine has now engaged reverse and Griffiths is quickly softening his language, manicured clarifying statements are being released and he’s even backing the Times CycleSafe campaign – classic PR crisis management in action and very predictable, if not a little shallow.  It’s amazing how a backlash from paying customers can quickly change your view.  Addison Lee will feel the aftershocks of that for some time to come, I’m sure.  What’s different about today’s times however, is that if you search “Addison Lee” in google, you’ll read nothing but up to the minute negative stories and you’ll also get to read blog’s like this, which will have a big impact on their organic search for some time to come.

Leading Lessons

Every business needs a good spokesperson, particularly big businesses more than others.  It doesn’t always have to be the CEO, you can cast people according to skill.  What you must make sure of however is that they generate headlines for the right reasons.  Web 2.0 (social media and user generated content) have put power to the people.  You can see this manifest itself in many ways such as crowd sourcing, crowd funding and – in this case – “crowd forcing” – where the crowd get together to express their aggregated anger and create impact.  The impact to Addison Lee will be an entire community of cyclists, who have vowed to veto using their company ever again – oh dear.

Something as important as  your customer magazine, needs to be carefully filtered for content, it’s not the platform for your rant.  It should always be objective, considered and informative.  You can tackle big issues, of course you can, however the approach taken by Addison Lee on this occasion I think may well make the MBA courses as a case study of how to damage your Corporate reputation at a Ratner level scale.