The report into the death of Daniel Morgan published today (Tuesday 15 June 2021) is about more than the Metropolitan Police and what they did or didn’t do in relation to the investigation. It is about how organisations and businesses must banish the focus on reputation management when they are responding to crises, issues and incidents.
It was this line in the report that caught my attention:
“The Metropolitan police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service. Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit. In the panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption.”
For me it is unhealthy in all businesses and organisations to operate in a way that means decisions are made purely based on how to minimise any impact on reputation. I spend a lot of time training people in crisis communication and response and always include a discussion about reputation. PR professionals are brought up with the definitions of the work about how it is managing reputation and thankfully in recent years we have added a focus on ethical operation to this.
But PR should never be about reputation alone. Doing this will lead to bad or perverse decision making where what is right is sacrificed to what is reputationally acceptable. The role of communication should be to manage the consequences of the actions that are taken. Leaders need to use the information they have to make the right decision, or at least the best decision, then worry about the impact on reputation later.
We need to use the information in the report to start a conversation about the way communication and PR operates, and how reputation should be considered. More than this leaders in all organisations and businesses should consider the details in the report and look at how they operate, how they make decisions and how they may need to change. Yes, these things are more critical when we are talking about public bodies and institutions but it is much broader.
Reputation is about more than being seen to do the right thing, it is about doing the right thing and then shining a light on it. I will continue to encourage communicators to consider what role reputation should play when they are planning their crisis communication response. For me it is clear, I wrote in my book on leadership in a crisis:
” Leaders need to understand and recognise the importance of communication in a crisis but also in ensuring that the response is ethical and not rooted solely in protecting the reputation of the business or them as a leader.”
Have a listen to the podcast Untold – The truth about the murder of Daniel Morgan. You will hear that this is far greater and deeper an issue than poor leadership comms and decisions around reputation. The murder of Daniel Morgan was just one of a number of major crimes (including murder) committed by MET Police officers over decades who had forged connections to major UK news outlets, criminals, and undercover detective agencies – who were all sharing information gained by illegal means to make money. Daniel’s death was not about poor PR or crisis management – it is all about corruption. Like I say, have a listen – you will be shocked.
Absolutely agree with the obsession about Reputation being misplaced. as Abe Lincoln said ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.’ We in the PR industry have been obsessed with shadows, we need to be about fixing trees.