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In this week’s bulletin, Charlie discusses the Post Office scandal and why, only now, has the scandal become headline news.

You can’t avoid the post office scandal in the news this week, so I thought I should write about it. What I find interesting about this scandal is why it is now mainstream news, with the conservative government falling over themselves trying to be seen doing something quickly, when the event has been going on for decades. I remember reading about the details of it in an article in The Sunday Times in 2021 entitled ‘How the Post Office Scandal Destroyed Lives: They Were Hung Out to Dry’. Although the story was in the mainstream media, there was no general public consciousness of the event.

In her book ‘Crisis Ready’, Melissa Agnes talks about three items that make a story go viral. She was talking about social media rather than mainstream news, but I think this formula applies in the Post Office case. The three ingredients for a story going viral are:

  1. The story elicits an emotional response
  2. The story is relatable to the readers
  3. There is a picture or video that portrays the incident

There is no doubt that the Post Office story elicits a strong emotional response in those who find out about it. Good, honest, hardworking, respected members of the community were hounded and prosecuted by the Post Office for dishonesty, leading to the loss of businesses, respect, divorces, bankruptcy, and, in four cases, suicides, and perhaps a lot more early deaths. These prosecutions continued even when the Post Office knew that their Horizon system had flaws. This has been followed by the typical buck-passing by politicians and those responding on behalf of the Post Office: “Nobody told me”, “I didn’t know it was that bad”, “the Post Office wasn’t honest with me” all trying to deflect the blame that they knew about it. They were in a position of power to do something, but did little or nothing. I feel quite angry just writing about it.

The story is very relatable to members of the public; we have all at some time used the post office, and in many small communities, the post office and the shop are at the heart of the community. Many of us will know the manager of the Post Office personally. The people prosecuted were not rich, someone from a community far away; they were people like us, and we could think, “What if our employer wanted to maliciously prosecute us?”

For a long time, journalists had written about the scandal. First in Computer Weekly (2009) and Private Eye (2011), and then in mainstream newspapers, so this story was not new. Many of the facts that are now in the mainstream have been known for several years. It was not new facts from the public inquiry that raised the profile of the event, but the ITV drama “Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office”. This was the picture or video that portrays the incident catalyst, that brought the story to public attention, and in responding to the public outrage, the politicians are running around trying to deal with the situation.

I think as business continuity professionals, we should take note of Melissa’s formula for stories going viral and recognise the three elements. If there is a breaking story about our organisation that has all three ingredients, then we need to identify this as a potential risk as early as possible and take early action to deal with the issue.

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