You can’t stall in a crisis, Zuckerberg finds to his cost

Sometimes in business, a hand grenade lands in your lap. You know that grabbing hold of it will be perilous – but you can’t ignore it.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was left such an incendiary problem when Donald Trump posted on the world’s largest social network about the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the US President wrote, tastelessly invoking the words of bigoted 1960’s white police chief Walter Headley.

When Trump had posted the same message on Twitter, the platform responded quickly by hiding the tweet behind a label warning that it glorified violence and stopped it being shared.

Zuckerberg had a crisis on his hands that left him balancing ethics, political interests, PR, internal communications and employer brand.

Censor the message and be attacked by Trump. Leave the message up and anger millions of Americans, including his own employees. Was the post tolerable in a land of free speech? Or was it incitement to violence at a time of intense civil unrest?

His dilemma was further complicated by his long-standing insistence that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher.

Twitter’s swift and decisive action piled on the pressure. Messaging app Snapchat followed suit, refusing to promote the President’s account because it would “not amplify voices who incite racial violence”.

Zuckerberg tried to steer a middle course, writing that while he had a personal “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s sentiments, he (Zuckerberg) was also the leader of an institution dedicated to free speech.

This did not play well. The argument did nothing to assuage the anger of civil rights leaders, the American people or his employees. Four hundred staff staged a virtual walkout and two resigned. Senior leaders in the business called for Zuckerberg to change his mind and remove the post.

In a bid to win them round, Zuckerberg held a virtual Q&A for 25,000 Facebook employees where he reiterated that it had been a tough call.

He took questions from employees, including one who asked if any black people were involved in his decision. Zuckerberg confirmed that one – but only one – had been among the small group who took the call, according to US news site Vox.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would not take a knee-jerk decision on the Trump post and said it was considering labelling posts, rather than taking them down. He pleaded that policies needed time to develop.

But the man who became a world powerbroker by inventing the social network – ironically the very medium that sped up communications – has discovered that time is the one thing you can’t buy in an explosive crisis.

Does your business need communications help in a crisis? Get in touch:

Comms voices: Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher CMG spent four years as foreign policy adviser to three Prime Ministers and four more representing the UK as Ambassador to Lebanon.

He led reviews of British diplomacy for the UK Foreign Office and on the future of the United Nations for the UN Secretary General. His book on the future of statecraft, The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age was published by Harper Collins. In 2018 he co-founded The Foundation for Opportunity. He is a Visiting Professor at New York University, and chairs the International Advisory Council of the Creative Industries Federation, promoting Britain's most dynamic and magnetic sector overseas.

Here, he tells Harpswood about the communications strengths of the different PMs he worked with, the pros and cons of Zoom and why it’s getting easier to pick out phoney communicators like Donald Trump.

You have worked with some amazing communicators. Who stood out for you and why?

UK diplomats have had to become much more active communicators over the last decade. The best are those that can combine authenticity, engaging content and a sense of purpose. Karen Pierce (Ambassador in Washington) has a unique, charismatic style. John Casson (ex Ambassador, Cairo) found a way to reach millions by combining his excellent Arabic with videos that showed he really connected with people's lives. Of the PMs I worked with, Tony Blair was great at setting out the dividing lines of an argument and then simplifying it; Gordon Brown could communicate moral heft; and David Cameron was strong on giving an opposing position and then challenging it.

Tech has transformed communication in the last 20 years. What has been the most important change in that period? And what has been the biggest danger caused by those developments?

Social media has upended everything we thought we knew about communicating and campaigning. The danger I didn't properly anticipate when I wrote the book was the extent to which it could be weaponised by the Trumps and Putins.

What do you think is the next big transformation in comms coming around the corner?

I think there will be a backlash against overload and people will seek more high quality, curated content.

With all the communications channels now available, how can individuals, businesses or organisations cut through the noise?

Too often they are polishing a turd. Often in government someone would say 'we need a better comms plan'. Often what we needed was a better policy. I think it is better to start by identifying your purpose, and then show how that connects to greater equality of opportunity. If it does, you can create compelling content. If it doesn't, you're struggling.

You played a leading role in changing how diplomats communicate by fully engaging with social media as well as traditional media. How should innovative businesses leaders communicate in 2020? Should they be on TikTok or stick to appearing on business podcasts?

I think it depends on the individual. What are they good at? What is their personal brand? I'd advise against getting hung up on the specific platform. In my review of the FCO, I recommended that fewer ambassadors join social media - there is no point forcing it if it is not your style.

Which business or organisation has been effective in its communications in recent years and why?

In the diplomatic space, the anti-poverty campaigns at the turn of the century were pioneering and extremely effective. They transformed comms. But we then got kind of stuck in that approach. You now need to be less top down, embrace the anarchy, and be prepared to ride waves you weren't expecting.

Some businesses and organisations bury their heads and hide away when it comes to communicating. Are there risks to that insular approach?

Depends on the business. For some they have little choice. But I think that will be increasingly difficult to justify. Social media makes people more sceptical and more demanding. If you can't explain in simple terms what you do and why, you will find it harder to survive.

Coronavirus has obviously had a huge impact on how we communicate - from the rise of video conferencing to (perhaps) the death knell of the handshake. Do you think this has changed how we communicate forever?

It's odd for diplomats to imagine fewer human connections and the end of handshakes. But it is a reality. The challenge with online comms - Zoom etc - is not necessarily with people with whom you already have a rapport. Much harder is connecting with those you have never met in the flesh.

A quote that’s been attributed to American comic George Burns (and others) is “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” How easy is it to pick out inauthentic communication?

Easier and easier. I think and hope that Trump and his ilk are the last yelp of that insincere and untrustworthy way of communicating, and that they immunise us against future leaders who want to sell the snake oil of hatred and extremism as a panacea for the genuine challenges people face.

Is there a business/organisational use of jargon that irritates you? Is there any place in communications for jargon?

In diplomacy I have waged a long campaign against phrases like "warm bilateral relations". Meaningless platitudes that turn people off.

The good, the bad and the ugly of corporate communications in lockdown

“I’ve never seen so many businesses wasted so badly,” is no doubt how Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name would have summed up the months of economic damage wrought by global lockdown. But which corporate gunslingers rode off into the horizon with their reputation intact… and which were left scrabbling in the dust? We take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of lockdown communications and the vital lessons that can be learned from them.


Admiral: The insurance industry came in for heavy flak during lockdown with some major firms refusing to pay out on seemingly legitimate business interruption claims. But Admiral bucked the trend. It garnered praise for refunding its 4.4million car and van insurance customers £25 each based on the fewer claims it expected during in lockdown. Cristina Nestares, chief executive of UK insurance at Admiral, linked the refund to the national mood, saying: “The Admiral Stay At Home Refund was launched to recognise the considerable efforts people are making by staying home as much as possible and as a result driving less.”

Comms lesson: Admiral was seen as fair and in touch with the public mood. Its move was praised by journalists and led to awkward questions for competitors as to whether they would follow suit.

British Land: In a tough time for commercial property, British Land – owner of the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield – got on the front foot. CEO Chris Grigg gave an interview to The Telegraph’s Economics Editor Russell Lynch at the end of March and landed some powerful messages: British Land had “bent over backwards” to help small players because corporate reputation mattered to them; he wasn’t going to let the big supermarkets off the hook on rent; the business had breathing space due to its low gearing and strong balance sheet; and he quelled talk of succession in the business to show stability. Even though the business lost a significant chunk of its value due to factors out of its control, it fought a good comms game and protected its reputation.

Comms lesson: Show that your reputation matters to you. Even when the climate is unforgiving and there are difficult times ahead, talk about the positive initiatives your business is taking and your strengths compared to competitors.

McDonald’s: Craving the instant hit of a Big Mac became shorthand for the vision of life after lockdown. Salivating journalists wrote of the simple pleasures of “the magical golden arches” as McDonald’s came to symbolise the pleasures we were collectively being denied because of the pandemic. When the fast food chain opened 33 of its drive thru restaurants in late May, videos and pictures of snaking queues filled social media. A spokesperson explained that company was working with local authorities to ensure the queues didn’t cause traffic disruption. In the run up to lockdown, McDonald’s offered free hot drinks to all NHS, council and emergency service staff.

Comms lesson: McDonald’s position at the heart of UK culture is final proof of the success of its rebranding as a modern, clean, family restaurant. The queues don’t lie.


Dyson: It’s hard to believe you could be having a bad time of it when you have just been placed number one on the Sunday Times Rich List. But James Dyson’s frank admission in May that he had spent half a billion pounds developing an electric car which would never be made compounded the feeling that the middle of an economic crisis was not the time to be shouting about wealth. Dyson’s business then ordered its staff back into work against government guidelines, leading to widespread criticism and an inevitable U-turn.

Comms lesson: James Dyson couldn’t help the timing of the Rich List but his business’s heavy-handed treatment of employees added to a sense that he was out-of-touch.

Ovo: Energy challenger Ovo entered the big league when it bought SSE’s retail division at the start of the year. Pete Wishart, the local MP in Perth – home to bulk of the SSE workforce – was quoted as saying that he had been “reassured that all of the 8,000 staff will be transferred on existing terms and conditions and there will be no job losses.” Two months into lockdown, Ovo asked staff to apply for voluntary redundancy as it tried to shed 2,600 jobs, blaming the “new reality” of Covid-19. Unions described it as a “betrayal” with the pandemic being used as a convenient excuse.

Comms lesson: There is never a good time to communicate job losses. But Ovo left itself open to criticism and claims of opportunism by apparently giving reassurances to key stakeholders that roles were safe.


Easyjet: The airline jettisoned its crisis communications manual at 35,000 feet and washed its dirty lifejackets in public. Founder and largest shareholder in the business Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. He stated that a multi-billion pound Airbus order was both a terrible deal and alleged it was the result of bribery. He said the deal should be cancelled – and for good measure tried to oust four key directors at an extraordinary company meeting. He failed, but Finance Director Andrew Findlay, one of his targets, resigned at the end of May. Days later, the airline announced it was cutting staff by up to 30 per cent.

Comms lesson: Keep your disagreements behind closed doors and speak with a unified voice. Try to keep vocal founders and activist shareholders inside the tent.

Hammerson: Unlike competitor British Land, commercial property giant Hammerson suffered a dreadful lockdown. The owner of North London’s Brent Cross and Birmingham’s Bullring had gone into the pandemic on the back of two bad calls. The first in December

2017 was an attempt to pay £3.4bn for rival Intu, which was scrapped thanks to an investor revolt. Intu – also having a terrible pandemic – has since seen its value collapse to around £60million with £4billion of debt. Shortly after the Intu deal fell apart, Hammerson refused to engage with a bid approach of 635p-a-share from French rival Klépierre. As its value plunged at the start of the year, it announced a £400million deal to sell seven retail parks to a private equity firm – but that collapsed thanks to the pandemic. CEO David Atkins came in for severe media criticism, not least from The Times’s business commentator Alistair Osborne. When Atkins finally announced his departure at the end of May – with the share price down to 74½p - Osborne’s stinging commentary was headlined “Hammerson horror lurches to climax”.

Comms lesson: PR can’t make bad decisions look good. But you should engage with your fiercest critics and make your best case

How a PR campaign might just have saved your favourite pub

“God I miss the pub.”

As lockdown stretched into its eighth interminable week, those heartfelt words – or variants of them – were sent to me in three separate messages on one day. It was a sentiment shared by millions.

But as much as we pined for a cold pint on a sociably warm evening, the pubs were longing for our return – and that of our wallets – even more.

Coronavirus laid waste to most sectors of British business, but pubs suffered more than most.

At the very heart of their pain lay the issue of rents. Many corporate landlords refused to waive rent during lockdown even though their tenants had pulled up the shutters at the government’s behest.

Pub rent is based on the turnover a pub is expected to make, rather than its square footage. The pubs argued that no turnover should mean a rent cancellation. But most of the big pubcos were at best suspending rent, thereby forcing pubs to build up debt that they said they could ill afford.

This perceived injustice triggered one of the most effective PR campaigns mounted during lockdown.

Lobby groups including the British Pub Confederation (BPC) and the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) joined with grassroots publicans to make their powerful case on social and traditional media.

Cheltenham publican Ed Anderson launched the hashtag #nopubnorent which swiftly gained organic momentum on social media and in turn was picked up by news sites including the Mail Online’s This is Money. A letter appeared in The Times referring to the hashtag which warned that unfair rents could kill off pubs.

The BPC went on the offensive, producing a basic but effective infographic dividing Pubcos into a Hall of Shame or Hall of Fame depending on whether they had waived rent.

The move neatly divided its opponent’s ranks by showering praise on the rent-cancelling likes of Admiral Taverns, Fuller’s, Shepherd Neame and Adnams. (Adnams even managed to capitalise by securing a positive profile interview with its CEO Dr Andy Wood in The Telegraph’s business pages).

The pubcos in the Hall of Shame largely kept their heads down and said nothing.

The BPC wrote an open letter to the chief executive of the Heineken-owned Star Pubs and Bars, accusing the chain of bullying tenants. The letter was picked up by national and regional media. They then teamed up with the Unite union to call for a rent cancellation.

Pubcos suddenly found themselves under scrutiny over their corporate set up. The Sun – perhaps nudged in the right direction by a campaigner – pointed out that Ei Group was based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. The pubco had been checking which of its pubs had received a bailout from the government. An editorial in the paper warned that the pandemic had exposed “some staggering greed” and branded demands for full pub rents as a “crazy act of self-harm”.

Regional news sites from the Oxford Mail to the Ilkley Gazette covered the pub rent story, illustrated with powerful case studies showing the financial pressure publicans from their region were under.

Urged on by campaigners – and no doubt sensing which way the wind was blowing – MPs joined the fray. Sixty signed a letter to the chief executive of Ei Group, demanding rent be waived, while more wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak asking for more support for pubs including on the rent issue.

Ei finally gave ground by agreeing to waive rent between April and June for about 350 of its near 3,500 tenants who were in receipt of no government grants.

But the campaigners continue to put the pressure on, with Ed Anderson launching a “Keys to MPs” stunt in which pubs, cafes and restaurants send a symbolic key to their MP in protest at rent charges.

The campaign has succeeded in amplifying grassroots pressure through the loudhailer of social and traditional, mean pubcos know their every move will be publicly scrutinised.

When lockdown is finally eased enough to enjoy that refreshing pint or zingy G&T with friends, you might want to raise a glass to PR.

To speak with Harpswood about a potential PR campaign or reputation support, contact