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Crisis management: The BBC and Martin Bashir

There are incidents and attitudes in crisis management.

Most reputational damage begins with an incident and escalates with a bad attitude.

So Martin Bashir lying to land a scoop with the Princess of Wales is an incident.

The BBC failing to investigate it thoroughly is an attitude.

And it’s how a crisis begins to spiral out of control.

So how can individuals, small businesses and large companies manage a crisis to avoid their reputation being crushed?

Read on.

Crisis management 101

how to be loud and clear, pink elephant, crisis management, bill mcfarlan

I reflect with pride that the highlight of my broadcasting careers was the decade I spent with the BBC as a reporter and presenter.

That’s because – despite its flaws – it’s the world’s most trusted source of news.

I believed that when I worked there between 1985 and 1995.

And I still believe that today despite the damage done by Martin Bashir.

In over four decades involved in journalism, it’s the first time I’ve heard of a TV reporter creating a web of deception to land an interview.

There was plenty of naked ambition on show when I worked in the Glasgow and London newsrooms.

But news editors demanded to know what source, or sources, were behind our information.

So the first failure of BBC management was the lack of scrutiny of Bashir’s proposed questions to Princess Diana.

Some based on his invented stories of her being “spied on” by palace officials.

But the subsequent investigation into Bashir demonstrated an attitude that made a bad situation worse.

The six steps

crisis management, pink elephant, six steps

We’ve run crisis management courses for decades.

Both from our training centre in Glasgow and in venues around the world.

In them, we stress the six steps required to handle media enquiries when things go wrong.

Had the BBC followed them, they would have avoided huge reputation damage.

Here they are.

1. Establish the facts

crisis management, pink elephant, establish the facts

Very often when an incident happens, facts are thin on the ground.

So those in charge follow what they want to be the explanation rather than seek out the truth.

Hillsborough and the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans was put down to rowdy supporters, rather than a policing mistake in opening the gate to an already-overcrowded pen.

Bloody Sunday was portrayed as Republicans opening fire rather than British soldiers shooting at will.

The Shirley McKie fingerprint scandal was down to “a rogue cop” rather than a careless fingerprint misidentification.

The BBC could easily have learned from a graphic artist that he was conned by Bashir into faking bank statements.

It falsely showed payments from a newspaper to a member of staff – which in the end, won the trust of Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother.

2. Define roles

define roles, pink elephant, crisis management

When things go wrong, decide who’s gathering information on the inside and talking to the outside world.

But split these responsibilities to give each person the space and time to do their job properly.

Tony Hall is a well-respected journalist and leader, as his later appointment of Director General demonstrated.

But he continued to run his department while running the investigation into Bashir – and the truth suffered.

Anybody appointed internally must be ruthless in their pursuit of the truth, however ugly it may be.

Because suggestions of “cover-up” as with Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday and Shirley McKie, are even uglier.

3. Say as much as you can – as early as you can

say as much as you can, bill mcfarlan, crisis management

Two high-profile fires in Scotland in recent years attracted huge interest.

At Cameron House on Loch Lomond, two young men died tragically as flames ripped through the building in December 2017.

A brief holding statement from Cameron House on their website said very little.

cameron house, crisis management

Weeks later, that short statement was still all they had said – and was completely inadequate.

The Glasgow School of Art caught fire for a second time in June 2018.

Four years after suffering extensive damage from another fire.

But for the first 72 hours, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh building was the subject of speculation.

Those running it failed to engage with the media until days after the blaze.

They may have been in shock, traumatised by events.

But they needed to explain that as speculation on the viability of the building ran rife.

Once more with Bashir, the BBC said far too little as they investigated their own programme

4. Monitor what’s being said publicly

crisis management, monitor, pink elephant

It’s easy to dismiss what’s in the public domain as “ill-informed”.

But often there are clues to the truth in what others are saying from outside.

That much is clear in the case studies I mention.

Campaigners told the truth for years.

The authorities feigned deafness.

Had the BBC listened to the ongoing noises from outside, they could have investigated further.

It’s folly to attempt to knock down everything today on social or traditional media.

Instead, monitor it – and feed what you learn into considered future statements.

5. Keep updating your audience

crisis management, keep updating, pink elephant

The BBC chose to shrug off future references to Bashir and the Diana interview.

And because people trusted the BBC, investigative reporters from daily newspapers accepted management was telling the truth.

But we believe that if further information comes to light, we need to share it.

That way, people trust us in getting to the truth.

It reminds me of a hotelier asking my advice when he suspected his showers were the source of an outbreak of a disease.

I advised he went public immediately, which he did.

Protecting his reputation for being trust-worthy.

Again, the BBC failed here.

They even rehired Bashir, 20 years after the Panorama programme.

6. Regret, reason, remedy

regret reason remedy, crisis management, bill mcfarlan

At the first opportunity, we need to say “sorry” when things have gone wrong.

So when we rehearse unthinkable scenarios with clients, we ask them to apologise in the first interview.

Sometimes people worry they’re accepting liability and will be sued for neglect.

But in reality, they’re simply empathising – and standing up to be counted.

So say sorry that something has gone wrong.

Say what you know about the reasons (and it may be very little).

Then explain how you’ll make amends.

When people have died – as they did at Cameron House – it’s impossible to make amends.

But we can take action to prevent any such tragedy in the future.

And the BBC could have taken action to prevent such deception in the future.

Instead, a quarter of a century passed.

Throwing doubt over decision-making for the next 25 years.

Crisis management

So there we are, six steps to prevent a bad incident from turning into a disastrous attitude.

Which can, in turn, shatter your reputation.

Reputation can take generations to build and moments to destroy.

Unless we take decisive action to put things right.


Bill McFarlan is Co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Featured photo in Crisis Management blog by on
Photos in Crisis Management blog by Pink Elephant Communications.
Crisis Management blog edited by Colin Stone.

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