Leaders behaving badly – business, the news cycle and managing reputational risk

Joelle Rich 13 Sep 2021

Since the drama of the 2008 financial crisis, business has moved from the back pages of the paper, to mainstream news. With this shift comes inevitable scrutiny of those at the helm of companies – with the conduct of CEOs and senior leaders increasingly in the spotlight. We’ve seen the line between CEO as ‘human’ and CEO as leader of a business become more and more blurred – with personal life choices of interest to media, in addition to business decisions. Slowly over the years, leaders have become the living embodiment of their businesses. As CEO, a ‘wrong’ step in your personal life can significantly harm your company’s reputation.

Over the last 18 months the pandemic has contributed to this trend, with business leaders under pressure to do the right thing even more so than in non-pandemic times. Now, as the question of how to encourage a workforce back to the office is high on the news agenda, business leader behaviour is taking centre stage once more.

But leaders – like entertainers – are human. No matter what your job, you are entitled to the same human right to privacy as everyone else.

So, what can you do to protect yourself before a mis-step happens?

An intense scrutiny

As companies work out their strategies for office working versus working from home, we’ve seen a burst of commentary about how those businesses are behaving towards staff – and with it, an inevitable thumbs up or thumbs down comment on leaders.

This isn’t entirely unexpected; there was a similar narrative at the start of the pandemic last year when many well-known companies found themselves in the spotlight for decisions about accepting government support.  The stories that made a lasting impact in the media generally featured the face of a well-known private business owner or the CEO or Chairman of a company, all of whom helpfully (albeit inadvertently) gave their face to the news coverage that was in many cases damning.

“Scandal” sells

Whether or not the criticism in this kind of coverage is justified, if there is an angle that will allow a journalist to write a comparison piece – juxtaposing the behaviour of the owner or senior executive against something like mass redundancies or alleged poor treatment of staff, they will use it to sell papers and increase website hits.  

What’s more, nothing is off-limits. The prevalence of social media means that the internet never forgets: past behaviour can come back to haunt business leaders at any time.  

If not now, when

The first step to mitigate against this kind of reputational risk is acknowledging that business leaders are no longer just the faceless people behind a company. If your business hasn’t already had to deal with the reputational impact of its leaders’ actions, it will likely be an issue in the future. It may not feel right or fair – but accepting the issue and mitigating it will cause a lot less stress in the long run.

We’ve seen corporate clients who have had to make redundancies and shut down operations during the pandemic get ‘caught out’ by the media, who discovered that the owner had left the country on a private jet. We’ve also seen situations where business leaders were called to account for accepting dividends at the same time as taking government support via the furlough scheme.

As always, prevention is better than cure. These five pointers are a good place to start:

  1. Horizon scanning can stop you from getting caught unaware – check what can be found out about your leadership and those around them. Look for any personal, private or residential details that could trigger press or public interest in the future. To make sure you’ve covered all bases, we find conducting regular reputation and privacy audits is always worth the effort. Designed to replicate the data gathering that journalists conduct from open-source records, these audits look at anything you can find online. Armed with this information you can remedy or mitigate any issues.
  2. If you’re a business leader, make sure your privacy and that of people around you is watertight. We often find it’s oversharing on social media by family members that can cause issues. Think about having policies in place that set out what is and isn’t appropriate to share. It’s vital to ensure private information which could be used to undermine the company and its leadership cannot be found.
  3. Remember – the law can assist. Privacy and GDPR laws to protect the disclosure of information relating to an individual (i.e. the business leader) can be of use, although the company itself can’t rely on them.
  4. If you are holding an event, an IPO for example, have a proactive plan in place. Implement the basics such as NDAs, legal notices prepared in case of any media intrusion or interest and 24/7 media monitoring so that you can jump on any leaked pictures or reports as soon as they are picked up.
  5. Don’t forget to look at historical coverage and see what can be challenged or mitigated. Old (and often inaccurate and outdated) allegations can and should be considered so that they do not hinder the prospects of the company going forward, particularly in an age where the media will often copy and paste old content to pad out new stories.

This article was co-authored by Joelle Rich and Gillian Duffy.