The public will forgive a mistake, but not a cover-up

The public will forgive a mistake, but not a cover-up

Paula Vennells’ fall from grace offers some important insight for brand owners, particularly in how we handle bad news.

There is one person who must be very grateful that the election took over the news headlines: Paula Vennells.

The announcement came just as the former CEO of the Post Office was finally facing the music in a public hearing to account for her part in the wrongful conviction of more than 900 sub-postmasters.

This is a story of a woman who once wielded immense power and is now disgraced, but it’s also a story of a leader more worried about defending her organisation against criticism than establishing the truth. It’s about someone who, even after all the public outcry, is seemingly incapable of taking responsibility.

The fact that she is an Anglican church leader (albeit no longer practising), implying a higher standard of moral principles, makes it all the more puzzling. We would be forgiven for expecting such a leader to value honesty above everything.

I would certainly have expected Vennells to have a highly developed sense of what is morally right and wrong. And, after the opportunity for reflection over many years, to recognise that the price of protecting the Post Office came knowingly at the expense of hundreds of innocent people.

In denial

One of the most striking aspects of Vennells’ reaction to the scandal is that she has been so silent. She admitted to spending most of her time in the last few years preparing for her appearance at the public inquiry.

And yet the only visible act of contrition made thus far for her part in the controversy was to return her CBE earlier this year after over a million people signed a petition demanding that she be stripped of it.

No wonder her prepared apology rang hollow. She wept with shame, but it failed to evoke any empathy and was afterwards described as shedding “crocodile tears”. Words are meaningless when actions have been so harmful.

The main plank of her defence is that she was “too trusting” and took the advice of others rather than probing more deeply into what was going on. But it is now obvious that she favoured the words of her PR advisor over her legal counsel.

Indeed, Vennells is shown to have criticised her general council, Susan Crichton, who Vennells described as having “put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business”.

Mark Davies, her communications director, played a prominent role in persuading Vennells not to review the cases involving convicted sub-postmasters. He said that such a move would “fuel the story” and had the potential to “go ballistic”.

In stark contrast, Crichton was exited from the company three months after providing the board with a challenging interim report looking into Horizon that was compiled, at her request, by forensic accountancy firm Second Sight.

Seeking the truth

There is a lesson here for all brand owners. We need to be clear at what point protecting the reputation of a brand crosses a line and becomes part of a cover-up.

Any communications director would confirm that their primary duty is to manage the public perception of their company. To that extent, they will be inclined to bury bad news stories and advise against operational decisions that might lead to negative messages.

At face value, that would seem to be good practice: to run the lens of “the court of public opinion” when making decisions as a proxy for testing different outcomes against ethical standards. However, when the fear of having to handle a negative message prevents the organisation from establishing the truth, that tips into cover-up territory.

I have participated in discussions that aimed to find a way to get on to the front foot in the face of a negative news story. Commonly known as “spinning”, it is the art of reframing the next phase of messaging development so it either gives a more balanced picture or moves the story on.

I have also been in conversations when the organisation was going to make an operational decision to the detriment of customers and we have made the case to do something different because of the potential damage to the brand image.

However, I have never personally experienced a deliberate failure to investigate an issue for fear of what might be discovered. I would always recommend the mantra of “no surprises” as a good one to practise. Better to know the worst and then manage it, rather than risk being derailed by unexpected information emerging further down the line.

Ignorance is no defence

The reason Vennells was paid £700K a year was because she was responsible for the management of the entire enterprise. The size of the salary reflected the high-stakes and high-pressure environment in which she was operating and the weight of responsibility as ultimate decision-maker.

So, unfortunately for her, there are no excuses that anyone will find acceptable. Over such a long period of time, and under so much scrutiny, it is not credible to claim continued ignorance. She had every opportunity to use her powers as the CEO to ask questions and get to the bottom of things.

In law, her failure to do so is described as wilful ignorance. That is, when a person intentionally keeps themselves unaware of facts that would render them liable or implicated for a wrongful act. Or, as Margaret Heffernan puts it in her book Wilful Blindness: “If there are things that you could know and should know and somehow manage not to know, the law holds you responsible.”

Making a bad situation worse

The point has to be made that Vennells didn’t cause the original mess. She inherited a terrible situation that she decided to try to bury rather than put right.

As my former boss Amanda Mackenzie said to me recently: “The British public will forgive a mistake, but they can’t forgive a cover-up. That is what has made Paula Vennells the CEO in the spotlight, rather than her predecessor Adam Crozier.”

Any leader should expect to be judged by how we handle ourselves in the face of a mistake being made in our organisation. Vennells said she ran a campaign during her time as CEO called “Bad News is Good News” so people would tell her the hard things that a boss needs to know. This revelation was greeted with laughter.

The evidence has consistently shown that the culture of the Post Office was the complete opposite. A culture that started at the top of the organisation and flowed down from the example set by the CEO. A woman who, even now, can’t admit she was entirely responsible for encouraging the suppression of bad news, with all its devastating consequences.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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