January 13, 2022

A tale of two sorrys


This insight was also featured in PRWeek.

There wasn’t a PR in Britain who didn’t feel some sympathy for the well-meaning exec who told SSE’s customers to do star jumps. This is, after all, the era of content is king, and there are only so many creative ways to land a key message.

But what could have spiraled quickly into a public relations disaster for Ovo and its marmite of energy leaders, Stephen Fitzpatrick, has instead become a true best practice lesson in reputation management.

We who have dedicated careers to honing our skills and selling them to the world’s most successful firms rarely like to acknowledge the simple truth; this is not brain science. It can be in many cases relatively easy to avoid a cataclysmic disaster in the face of a comms manager’s “bad day”. You just need the chief to say sorry. And mean it.

Which brings me to the sorry tale of the other significant apology of the week. A great lesson in how not to manage a reputation. Indeed, if you put our esteemed Prime Minister alongside Stephen Fitzpatrick, you might quickly see why the former is not the one floating flying taxis on the New York Stock Exchange.

I have a personal interest in Ovo’s story. I was one of the fortunate few to be awarded the PR and public affairs gig from Stephen back when Ovo was still fighting for recognition as a challenger to the Big 6. He was every consultant’s dream client and worst nightmare. His ability to deliver a soundbite made the job of pitching him to BBC broadcast pretty straightforward. But his refusal to settle for anything other than perfection made unsociable calls to complain “why wasn’t he on the front page of the FT when the British Gas boss is?” commonplace. He quickly built himself a reputation for standards that can’t be faulted; laying the problems of the Big 6 at the door of government, and leading by example.

I’ve been an Ovo customer ever since, and frankly, they do just that. But what has become evident this week is that Stephen, now AKA “Britain’s Elon Musk” recognizes that this astronomical success is built on trust. That the reputational currency he has garnered, so hard won, so easily lost, is to be fought for. Which is why he sat on the sofa yesterday and apologised personally and unreservedly. No one under a bus; no “but I only took my eye off the ball for 25 minutes”.

Oh dear, Bojo. And your poor PR advisors, who will certainly have seen this coming. It is not a good thing that the final apology yesterday, weeks late, is tinged by the headlines that “this may be the first time he has ever done it” – apologise, that is. This is not a PM who says sorry; who accepts liability; who shows accountability. Perhaps his special advisor “had a bad day” too. But it was on his watch, and the reluctance to accept this puts him entirely at the other end of the trust spectrum.

Stephen Fitzpatrick’s very public, humble apology has possibly saved the day for Ovo/SSE. Boris Johnson’s spectacular failed one may well have lost him much more. Time will tell. But if you’re in the business of reputation management, this is certain: the skills of our trade are influencing the fortunes of business and government now more than ever.