Mike Ashley – PR star?
Sometimes listening to captains of industry being interviewed can be a yawn-inducing experience. They’ve been media-trained to within an inch of their lives and appear to have been sent off with a stern warning that anything they say will immediately impact their stock price/company survival/job prospects. The result? Cagey, bland and message-filled interviews that don’t get across their personality or that of the brand that they represent.
Of course, there are exceptions who engage with the audience while still getting their message across, but for many, fear of failure stops anything interesting being said. As a PR person I find this really frustrating, as it is a missed opportunity to communicate.
Therefore it is always entertaining to hear from those CEOs who have built a brand on not giving a damn on what they say and seem to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise interviewers. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair immediately comes to mind, but he seems to have mellowed – O’Leary has even said that “If I’d only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago.”
Another case entirely is Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who has combined an appetite for controversy with not caring about speaking to the media. Given his reputation for frank speaking I can see why his PR handlers have kept him out of the limelight, so like many I was expecting fireworks when he appeared in front of House of Commons Select Committee to discuss working conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse. However, I was surprised at what I heard. Rather than bluster and defensiveness he admitted past mistakes, such as not paying the minimum wage, and said that the company’s size meant that it had probably outgrown his ability to run it. And all this after previously stating that he wouldn’t appear at the session and that if they wanted to speak to him, he’d send his helicopter to ferry MPs to his company HQ for an interview.
So what caused this road to Damascus moment? I think partly it was the realisation that, like O’Leary, being hated by your customers and the public isn’t a long term business strategy. Competition is fierce in the retail market, and while many shoppers may not care about the working conditions behind their cheap trainers, others do. There is such a thing as bad publicity – stories about a female member of staff giving birth in the Shirebrook toilets as she didn’t want to call in sick and risk her job is bound to resonate widely with many people. By admitting errors and saying that the company was going to change he’s now one step ahead of his critics, though the focus will be on him to deliver on his promises.
Another reason was that his actions give him the chance to occupy the retail moral high ground, given the ongoing investigation into the collapse of BHS, which has also seen leading figures in front of parliamentary committees this week. Former boss Dominic Chappell (who bought the business for a pound from Sir Philip Green), was accused of “having his fingers in the till” by one of his associates, described as a “Premier League liar” and of threatening to kill the chief executive after he challenged him on his behaviour. In turn Chappell’s testimony tried to shift the blame to Green, who he claimed had bankrolled his purchase (with more than a pound), and was behind the decision to put the chain into administration. Green will now get the chance to defend himself in front of the committee, so expect more mudslinging. Given his contrition it all makes Ashley look like a paragon of virtue – something that may help fulfil his desire to buy BHS in some form.
For anyone talking to the media, they should keep these examples front of mind. Develop your own style, tailor it to the audience in order to engage with them, and take the time to go beyond the pre-written message if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Mike Ashley or just talking to your trade press, invest time in the interview and you (and your company) will reap the benefits going forward.
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