The state of perma-crisis inhabited by the Metropolitan Police is one of the clearest imaginable case studies of how reputation is ultimately driven by culture. Here are four key communications considerations for any organisation in need of cultural overhaul.
1. Leaders must not appear in denial
Former Met chief Cressida Dick’s removal was a necessary step towards cultural change, not least because she repeatedly responded to criticism by suggesting the public should reject the evidence of their eyes and ears – something the National Black Police Association described as her “Achilles heel”. When future misbehaviour is uncovered, new commissioner Sir Mark Rowley must resist the temptation to always stick up for his officers. While it is to a degree understandable that leaders don’t want to hang their team out to dry, this must not lead to defending the indefensible.
2. Understand how the frontline feels
We media bubble-dwellers forget that many people take little interest in current affairs. This may include many Met officers; and in any case, why would people want to immerse themselves in damning criticism of their employer? Other Met staff may feel under siege, or in denial about the problems the force faces. None of that is conducive to individual officers behaving appropriately, avoiding mistakes and being part of the change process themselves. Organisations with cultural crises must ensure that staff both understand that change is vital, and see it as an opportunity.
3. Communicating a plan is as important as having one
Let’s be clear: the Met’s travails are not merely PR crises, but the result of deep-seated cultural failings that have directly led to a bad reputation. Rowley must fundamentally change the way his organisation works. Enacting such changes is not a short-term task, but what can be done quickly is demonstrating that you are creating, and then implementing, a transformation plan. Leaders overseeing such plans must focus on clear, public articulation of how they will learn from the various lessons of the past.
4. A lightning quick comms team, respected internally
Organisations with a good reputation have ‘empathy capital’; when something goes badly wrong, they are able to recover relatively quickly, compared to an organisation with a poor reputation. The Met, meanwhile, will have audiences quickly jumping to the worst possible conclusions every time. As such, a properly resourced, lightning-quick press office can play a part in preventing the Met’s reputation from getting any worse than it needs to.
On top of being rapid, the comms team needs to be well-respected. There can be a tendency in uniformed services for officers to be sceptical about corporate colleagues who lack frontline experience. An organisation requiring turnaround must value its communications function and see it as playing a vital role in creating an environment in which it can be successful, rather than just being the people to lean on when something has, yet again, gone wrong.
Tim Toulmin is managing director of Alder, part of the Crisis Communication Network Europe