In this week’s bulletin, Charlie discusses the controversy surrounding Michelle Mone and her husband Douglas Barrowman, and provides some advice around how we can improve our crisis management.
I was listening to the news on the radio this morning, and they were talking about the recent revelations about the tax schemes which Michelle Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman, is alleged to be involved in. I have been watching Michelle’s crisis management for a number of months, and the radio segment this morning inspired me to write this bulletin. What fascinates me slightly about this case is Michelle Mone herself. I have a dislike for public figures who come across as arrogant, self-important, and entitled. I think you can have all these attributes if you are very successful at what you do. If you are the richest man in the world or one of the best tennis players ever, then I can respect these attributes, but if you seem to be claiming you are much more successful than you actually are, I get a strong case of Schadenfreude when you get your comeuppance.
Businesswoman Baroness Mone is a Scottish rags-to-riches story. From humble roots, she built her fortune on the Ultimo bra in 1999, but sold her stake in the company in 2015. At the beginning of the pandemic, she took the ‘VIP lane’ deals, making use of her political connections and provided PPE (personal protective equipment), which was later found to be substandard and unusable. She initially claimed that she didn’t profit from the deal, but her denials crumbled, replaced by confessions that she and her family did profit from the scheme. She is now under National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation, and her reputation is in tatters. There are now calls for her husband to be investigated for tax schemes, which are alleged to have been left to those using them, many being self-employed contacts, facing huge tax bills.
So, what can we learn from her crisis management?
- First of all, never lie. It is so obvious, but time and time again, we see organisations and individuals being caught out. It is never the original sin that has the major impact; it is the cover-up and being caught telling lies. Two additional elements in this story make it worse for Michelle. The media especially hates someone who lies to them. They take themselves very seriously, and they take it personally when this happens. In the past, she frequently used lawyers to stop any mention that she profited from the contracts. Once the media has it in for you, then it is very difficult to rehabilitate your image.
- If you have other elements of your life or business life that, to the public, have an air of impropriety, you may not want to draw attention to yourself or your family. Allegations of tax evasion and avoidance, offshore companies, possible HMRC investigation, and ordinary members of the public losing money, while the scheme owner Douglas Barrowman, becomes a multimillionaire, does not endear you to the court of public opinion. If there is strong public opinion against a businessperson, then it can prompt the authorities to carry out their own investigation. As the media is hostile, it is likely that they will find and publicise any allegations they can find. If other parts of your life may not seem to be honest from an outsider’s perspective, then perhaps it is not a good idea to draw attention to yourself.
- Anything to do with Covid and the NHS illicit strong emotions, and everyone has recently been through the experience of the pandemic. For many, the pandemic was a time of great sacrifice and loss. If you are seen to have profited personally from the pandemic and then lied about it, this is going to invoke public anger. If you lied, then to me, it shows you knew what you did was embarrassing, and that’s why you didn’t admit that you personally profited from the sale. What makes this situation worse is that most of the PPE supplied couldn’t be used.
- Baroness Mone seems to have no self-awareness of how others perceive her. What she has done has all the optics of dishonesty, greed, and profiteering, and involving the cherished NHS is never going to endear you to public opinion. Even if she is not found guilty in the NCA and other investigations, the perception of her dishonesty will linger. The old adage ‘when you are in a hole, stop digging’, or ‘don’t feed the media monster’, applies here. She has initiated, unsuccessfully, a number of activities to try to give her side of the story. She commissioned a one-hour YouTube documentary, and was interviewed by Laura Kuenssberg, which only initiated further controversy, coverage, and ire directed at her. Her interview with Laura Kuenssberg was likened to the Prince Andrew ‘car crash’ interview by Emily Maitlis. When you are in the eye of a crisis management storm, keep a low profile, and don’t further feed the media monster.
- If you have been vilified in public life, then there is a tried and tested way to rehabilitate yourself. You keep a low profile and do some work with a charity associated with your perceived crime. After a year or so you can make a comeback, where you are humble, admit your mistakes, and tell everyone you have learned from the experience. To initiate this strategy, you have to have enough emotional intelligence to understand that, in the public’s eyes, you have done something wrong and you have learned from the experience.
- The only place where I do have some sympathy for Michelle is that there is somewhere, I suspect, a misogynistic element to this story. A good-looking, Baroness, OBE, successful businesswoman will always be a target for misogyny, and so I think some of the reaction to this story is driven by this.
As I have often said in this bulletin, looking at crises unfolding, following them, and seeing how you would advise those in the eye of it, is a good way to learn.