The CBI scandal: crisis comms lessons pt. 2, the CBI media strategy

May 15, 2023

In the second of a two-part blog series (you can read the first for context here), we examine the communications and reputational challenges faced by business lobby group, the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI), and the takeaways for organisations dealing with public criticism from former employees and leaders.

Members of your organisation are leaving in droves. Employees have alleged workplace misconduct and harassment. And after sacking your CEO, he very publicly and emotively declares himself to have been made ‘the fall guy’.

By all accounts, the situation faced by the CBI represents a PR crisis of catastrophic proportions. Some believe the storm-tossed organisation to be “finished”, with Baroness Helena Morrissey declaring it to have acted “too little, too late”.

Whether the CBI is truly over remains to be seen – but the Baroness was right to conclude that, “losing trust is so quick, easy to do, and then regaining it is so difficult.”

So, what – at an internal and external communications level – were the CBI’s PR missteps along the way, and could it have acted differently, given the circumstances?

Strange bedfellows: PR, HR, and the challenges of internal communications in the CBI scandal

From an internal communications perspective, perhaps the biggest challenge from the outset was that misconduct allegations were being levied against Tony Danker, the (now sacked) CEO, as well as other senior staff members.

When the alleged wrongdoer is a senior figurehead, the company may struggle to act quickly and decisively, and to show that internal investigations are free from internal bias or influence. An internal investigator may feel unable to investigate their superiors without fear of repercussions – or may simply be perceived externally or internally as lacking independence (regardless of the rigour of their investigation).

This is at least one of the reasons for an external specialist, such as a law firm, to conduct the investigation independently. In the CBI’s case, Fox Williams was brought in to ensure that the process was free from bias (real or perceived), and that the investigator was seen to be acting fairly and objectively.

However, despite Rain Newton-Smith, the new CBI CEO and a member of the executive board at the time of the allegations, declaring that, “Whenever I have seen sexual harassment, I have acted”, the Fox Williams report found that the CBI allowed a “very small minority” of staff to believe they could get away with harassment or violence against women. So, while Newton-Smith may have intervened, the organisation itself apparently did not (or if they did, it was not fast or decisive enough).

Key to any strong employee communications strategy – which very much includes communications around HR procedures and safeguarding – is cohesive and timely messaging, and values which align with your employees. Just as handling these issues effectively enhances reputation; so too can a poor response be deeply damaging. HR cannot exist in a hushed microcosm, independent from the rest of an organisation.

When crises go public: Danker steps out on the front foot

If the CBI had been slow to act from an internal communications perspective, it was even slower to act from an external one and – more crucially – to communicate its actions.

On 3 April, The Guardian dropped its bombshell report, Revealed: new claims of sexual misconduct and ‘toxic culture’ at CBI.

Only on 11 April was Danker dismissed – whereupon he told the media that he was “the fall guy”, that he had been “thrown under the bus”, his reputation “destroyed”, he was “wrongfully associated with rape”, and “The CBI knew about [his alleged wrongdoings] and not once raised them as a disciplinary issue, until suddenly they became grounds for instant dismissal.” It was emotive – even sympathetic –and proactive.

You can read our analysis of Danker’s media strategy here, at The CBI Scandal: Crisis Comms Lessons Part 1, but suffice it to say that his decision to respond on the front foot likely caught the CBI off guard. Their own narrative was, at the time, far less substantive – if not in a level of moratorium – and the investigation in its final stages.

Only following a wave of companies pulling their membership – including John Lewis, BMW, Aviva, NatWest, and Unilever – did the CBI really seem to hit crisis PR mode. In many ways, they now did it by the book.

On 24 April, they published Fox Williams’ report on the website for all to see, as well as a lengthy statement which emphatically apologised, admitted to hiring “culturally toxic” staff and failing to fire people who sexually harassed colleagues (without shifting blame elsewhere), and laid out a framework to change its culture.

Rain Newton-Smith, who spent nine years at the organisation before stepping into Danker’s shoes, subsequently stated that she hadn’t experienced a toxic culture while there. While at odds with her statement that she had been intervening in (ergo, had encountered) problems, it nonetheless implied that this wasn’t a systemic issue, that her loyalty was justified, and that she could offer transparency and accountability to the organisation’s employees, members, and the public – values utterly critical to any crisis response.

What makes an effective crisis response? 

Regardless of how closely the CBI eventually came to adhere to the playbook, it arguably made missteps at every turn.

Firstly, organisations must understand that ‘internal’ issues, such as employee experience, workplace issues, HR etc., are now critical drivers of external reputation (and must be treated as such in terms of comms).

Some may argue that to implement internal changes amid an ongoing investigation could undermine it (or infer culpability). Others might note that it takes time to plan large-scale changes (and especially so at an organisation the size of the CBI). But the allegations were not one-offs – or even recent. Cultural changes should have been in the pipeline months – if not years – sooner, once issues continued to surface.

Secondly, organisations should plan for every eventuality (especially crises that feel unlikely or uncomfortable) and, thirdly, appear to be in control when crises do break – neither of which happened.

The CBI lost the ‘high ground’ from the moment The Guardian released its exposé. Far from having action plans and statements in place, in anticipation of the inevitable backlash once the investigation went public (and certainly no later than Danker’s dismissal), the CBI failed to step out hard and fast, and to seize the initiative before – or in response to – Danker.

To some, the CBI’s response now looked like a panicked reaction on the fly, versus a response from an organisation that had fully prepped and braced itself for how severe the consequences might be – let alone foreseen and sought to mitigate issues before boiling point. It’s a testimony to the need to have strong HR and communications teams in place, and to how closely linked the two can be.

Conclusion: reputation as commodity

Newton-Smith has now stated that the CBI will change its name and hired an ethics consultancy, as part of efforts to demonstrate and realise a change in culture. It’s not the first time a company has done this – either to encompass new values and purpose (see: Meta), or to disassociate itself from negative publicity (a PR move that can be traced back to the early 1930s, when US town Mira Loma changed its name).

But for now, the real challenge isn’t to change the packaging. It’s to convince businesses that the CBI remains their best ally when it comes to influencing policy agenda; prove the government wrong in its assertion that the CBI no longer has any point; and that its values meet public and employee standards – not least for anyone who might consider working there.

If successful, victory will depend less on immediate silver-tongued arguments, and more on the long-term replenishment of goodwill and restoration of reputation – now, more transparently than ever, the most valuable commodity an organisation can have.

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