The CBI scandal: crisis comms lessons pt. 1, the Tony Danker media strategy

April 27, 2023

In early April, The Guardian newspaper exclusively reported on a wave of serious allegations regarding UK business lobby group the CBI.

The subsequent weeks saw the launch of both independent and police investigations, as well as the dismissal of Director General Tony Danker – all of which were played out across the front pages and airwaves.

Businesses have subsequently cancelled or paused memberships, and with the government having stated there is ‘no point’ in engaging with the body at this time, doubts surround its immediate future.

The CBI has now responded to the independent investigation and published its immediate action plan to restore trust and credibility.

In the first of a two-part blog series examining some of the communications issues at play  Helen Scott looks at the strategy adopted by Tony Danker and the takeaways for private individuals looking to manage their reputation in the wake of a public crisis.

Reputation management takeaways for private individuals

Tony Danker, former boss of the Confederation of British Industry, recently held an interview with the BBC in which he said that his reputation had been “totally destroyed” over complaints about his behaviour that led to his sacking from the CBI in recent weeks.

The interview attracted a huge amount of media attention, not least because it is unusual for high profile individuals who have been sacked to turn the lens back on their former employers, preferring instead to go the usual route of the courts. As the CBI pointed out in its response, if Mr Danker wants redress against the decision to sack him, the employment tribunals are at his disposal.

The interview was also, arguably, a risky move by Danker as it re-ignited the discussion around him personally (vs the CBI more generally) that was just dying down. Many in his position might have preferred it to stay that way. Allegations made against him included that he made unwanted verbal remarks and sent a barrage of unwanted messages featuring sexually suggestive language over more than a year.

It’s clear however that Danker was and is keen to have his say on the matter, and he has certainly done so.

Language and positioning in Danker’s crisis communications

In his interview, which was headline news, he conceded that he may have made some people feel ‘very uncomfortable’ but that he had never had any physical contact with any of the people complaining about him, or used sexual language. He asserted that he was the “fall guy” for the wider crisis engulfing the CBI, which has seen a torrent of accusations regarding drug taking, sexual harassment and even rape.

His choice of language was smart, perhaps even consciously calculated to get cut through with the media and, as a result, win public support: the phrase “fall guy” is immensely quotable and appeared in many of the headlines – with many news consumers often skimming these, via social media for example, an impression of a man wronged could well be created.

Meanwhile, his rebuttals to a number of the accusations facing him were detailed and plausible. Even his acknowledgement that he will have made some people uncomfortable will have humanised him, for being upfront and taking responsibility for his actions, while some may even have related directly to the types of scenario he described.

Media audiences will have contrasted his ‘personal’ story with that of the (perceived) ‘broken’ institution he is at odds with. With the institution itself under the microscope, exacerbated by its appointment of an internal candidate to succeed Danker, the ‘David vs Goliath’ aspects of the narrative would likely have been doubly compelling.

All of this would help to build empathy with him and his cause. However, reactions to Danker’s position overall will be mixed. Leaving aside the contested facts, many will observe that making people feel very uncomfortable (even unintentionally) is not appropriate behaviour – especially for someone in a senior and high profile role.  Furthermore, unless and until a wrongful dismissal case goes to court and the contested facts are examined, it’s difficult to say conclusively who was right and who was wrong.

Going on the front foot

The key question, though, is why engage with the media at all?

Danker’s assertion that his reputation had been destroyed by the events in question is noteworthy – the implication being that reputation, for him (and all brands, personal and corporate) has real worth. It is something hard won, and must be defended, not least given the range of decisions which, whether consciously or not, are taken based on it – being treated as a credible business partner, or being hired into a future role, for example.

And therein lies the tactical appeal of doing the interview, and well before any talk of an employment tribunal case.

In getting his message out early, Mr Danker has had his say in the court of public opinion. Better, he may feel, to have persuaded a few people than none at all.

Secondly, he demonstrated to the CBI, if they needed to see it, that his side of the story has significant public interest. If, hypothetically, he were to decide to sue them at some point in the coming months, that may have a bearing on whether the CBI choose to settle or go all the way to the courts.

Finally, there is little doubt that Danker will also have been considering the effects of the media firestorm on his family and wider personal life. For high profile figures, the public and private are increasingly blurred and when individuals are on the front pages it is easy to forget that those closest to them will also be reading, digesting and forming opinions.

Can we draw any conclusions about Mr Danker’s medium to long term strategy here, in terms of seeking redress? Absolutely not. He has been quite clear that he does not want to sue and that is an entirely understandable position. There are however takeaways for high profile individuals who find themselves in a similar position.

  1. Avoiding the media entirely cuts oneself off from having any influence on the media narrative. Choosing not to engage may mean coming to terms with others shaping opinions about you
  2. Timing is everything. If this interview had happened in a year’s time, it likely wouldn’t have attracted the same interest. If it had happened in the middle of an employment tribunal hearing, it would have complicated the case (or risked being found to be in contempt of court).
  3. Any interview needs to be approached with care and preparation. Mr Danker came to the interview armed with the facts and context for many of the accusations, and with a consistent message.

In conclusion, reputation has value and the bigger the profile, the more scope for reputation damage – and loss of value.

Putting one’s head above the parapet or, to mix metaphors, willingly walking into the lion’s den of Fleet Street, may seem counterintuitive – particularly for those who perhaps have not faced the media before –  but the risk can bring reputation reward.

(As a corollary to the Danker interview, Prince Andrew’s disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis is an example of the risk not having paid off – due to a distinct lack of forethought, with his position coming across as unsympathetic and alienating the public still further).

More generally, high profile executives, and wealthy private individuals, have always been the subject of media and broader public attention. Power and influence brings with it expectation and scrutiny.

This dynamic is becoming ever more complex with public accessibility to issues previously confined to the ‘private’ domain – whether that is workplace matters or, say, tax liabilities – increasing exponentially, as a result of social media and ‘citizen journalism’, rising stakeholder expectations for transparency, and a growing body of regulation which compels it.

In this context, the communications imperative – to both build and defend reputation – has never been more critical. Tony Danker’s decision to go on the front foot is a prime case in point.

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