Independent Inquiries can seriously damage reputations: Senior Director Toby Mountford says prepare now for the COVID-19 fallout
By Toby Mountford, Senior Director at Citigate Dewe Rogerson
As the UK parliament returns to work all eyes are fixed again on the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of lives lost in the UK continues to compare badly internationally.
Boris Johnson has committed to staging some form of independent Inquiry when the time is right. The crisis, everyone acknowledges, is unprecedented but nobody believes the Government’s response has been perfect. The opposition under new leadership has wasted no time in sharpening scrutiny and criticism of almost every aspect of the decision making.
The fallout from the formal public reckoning, whenever it comes, will be significant. The actions of Government, its service providers, and others in the private sector, will come under intense scrutiny. Blame will be liberally thrown around as those most in the firing line try to deflect criticism.
Forgotten care home providers struggling to respond in a fragmented social care system, engineers racing to produce critical ventilation equipment, “profiteering” PPE suppliers, pharmaceutical companies straining to find a vaccine and software developers trying to create a more effective track and trace capability are just some of the players whose actions will likely be examined.
And that’s before attention is turned to the efficacy of the Government’s initiatives to save the economy and whether businesses behaved with integrity when taking taxpayer support.
Even though the timing of an independent Inquiry is uncertain, any organisation likely to fall under the spotlight, and with a reputation to protect, would be wise to start preparations now. Designed to find out the truth and learn lessons, independent Inquiries are laden with powers to enable them to call for evidence, statements and appearance as witnesses and can even delve into an organisation’s internal emails and WhatsApp messages.
The “gold standard” of investigations, Public Inquiries are the most powerful form. Inquisitorial in nature with questioning led by QCs, they can make or break a reputation. They are convened by a Government minister and gifted with special powers to compel testimony under oath and the release of evidence.
The media challenges are unique. All Public Inquiries are born out of suffering of various kinds. Combined with a thirst to secure justice, lay blame and learn lessons, this fuels media interest and spurs their own investigations for scoops. Social media will be used ruthlessly by protagonists to feed the national media narrative to better press their case for justice and redress. The journalists may be from more than one desk and may not know you at all. With Inquiries generally proceeding at such a slow pace over a long period, the media can choose their moments when to publish or broadcast in-depth investigations or reviews.
These are five lessons we have learned from our experience of recent Public Inquiries:
- Respect the primacy and power of the Inquiry and ensure that media responses and strategy travel in lockstep with your legal strategy
- Recognise that emotions will run high and the media will likely side with those who have suffered. So adopt a media strategy which is “safety first”, reactive, measured, designed to keep negative coverage to a minimum whilst defending your reputation, judicious and selective in assessing opportunities to communicate improvement initiatives and above all sensitive to those who have suffered
- Be ruthless in identifying faults in past behaviour and internal and external company materials and take appropriate action as early as possible to remedy them. Demonstrate a continuous learning culture, whether or not your behaviour was ever at fault
- Anticipate potential criticisms from the Inquiry and other third parties
- use the privilege of Core Participant status, if you have it, to prepare early reactive media responses
- monitor closely social media output from vocal third parties and build a body of evidence to prove you are improving, learning all the relevant lessons and demonstrate a commitment to best practice and industry leadership
- Consider at all times what is “the right thing to do” – and then do it
If you do all this, you will be in a much better position to respond once the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations finally come out – and to protect and maybe even enhance your reputation.