Is TalkTalk the new BP?

Every so often I’ll hear or see an interview that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Over the weekend, it was the TalkTalk Chief Executive, Dido Harding, who caught my attention.  She was on Saturday PM on BBC Radio 4 to talk about the company’s response to a cyber attack, that saw customers’ financial information, including bank account and sort code numbers, stolen by criminals.  As she tried downplay the extent of the cyber attack, the presenter challenged Ms Harding, stating that the security breach at TalkTalk meant scammers were well-armed to defraud people.  This was her striking response:

“And that’s why this is still a very serious issue, why even though it’s been incredibly painful for me and the whole company to be at the top of the news cycle for so long, I think we’re doing the right thing by informing all of our customers…”

It instantly reminded me of Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, who told a reporter “I’d like my life back” following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.  Millions of barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf of Mexico and 11 workers had been killed in the disaster. Yet the man at the helm of the company responsible appeared inappropriately concerned with his own situation.  In the end, he was forced to resign.

On Radio 4 on Saturday, TalkTalk’s boss was forced onto the defensive as a result of her own insensitive comment.  The exchange went like this:

Journalist:

“As painful as it is for you to be at the top of the news cycle, it’s not as painful as it is for some of the people we’ve been speaking to who’ve lost £9,000.  One couple we spoke to, their entire life savings…what is your responsibility there, to them?”

Dido Harding:

“To do exactly what I’m doing now…”

Only several minutes into the interview, when the journalist put it to Ms Harding that customers had lost their trust in TalkTalk and should be able to leave their contracts without penalty, did she tell the presenter:

“Well, I can totally understand the frustration, the worry, the concern, and I’m very sorry for all of that…”

An interview like this, in the midst of a crisis for customers and a media storm, is a golden opportunity for organisations to create breathing space for itself or even get ahead of the story.  When a spokesperson is unprepared, or under-prepared, it can make things considerably worse.   A slip of the tongue can make a company that’s trying hard to put things right, actually come across as being self-confessed and unconcerned with its customers.  Here are the mistakes Dido made and how to avoid them with TNR’s five top tips:

  1. Start with an apology

It’s all about the customer, especially when things go wrong, so say sorry before you say anything else.  An apology halfway through an interview may appear insincere

  1. Don’t play down serious issues

Using the words “that’s good news” in the context of a major cyber attack – and your third security breach in 12 months –  is inappropriate.  Put yourself in the position of an angry and upset customer.  How do they feel?

  1. Avoid talking about yourself

Another Dido Harding gem came in an interview with the Guardian, where she is quoted saying “We are understandably the punchball for everybody wanting to make a point at the moment.”  This is not about your pain.  The time to analyse your pain is AFTER not during the crisis

  1. Focus on solutions

Once you’ve expressed concern/contrition/sympathy, be really clear about what you’re doing to help customers and what you’re doing to prevent future problems.

  1. Get the tone right

Avoid sounding jolly or flippant.  It’s the surest way to enrage frustrated, disappointed customers.

 

Bridgid Nzekwu, Media Training, TNR
Bridgid Nzekwu is Head of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association

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