Bad publicity – who said there’s no such thing?

The head of human resources (HR) at Gordon Ramsay Holdings reportedly called an urgent meeting with staff this month after the famous chef’s Chelsea restaurant was splashed across the Sunday Mirror for all the wrong reasons.

The tabloid ran a story that a Muslim kitchen porter had allegedly being called a “black donkey” by a co-worker. According to the report, this prompted HR head Claire Lynn to call an emergency meeting to warn staff about the unnacceptability of offensive kitchen banter.

Rights and responsibilities

So how far do HR’s responsibilities go when it comes to public relations (PR) issues?

Andrew Robins, senior consultant for brand engagement at consultancy Penna, says HR should be taking PR more seriously, as negative press can greatly affect employee morale.

“This is especially true if what is reported highlights the company to be acting in a contrary fashion to the values and behaviours that it professes to hold close to its heart. In too many situations HR is perceived to play a reactive role in acting after an incident has occurred, by which time the damage has already been done,” he said.

Robins suggests that HR should work alongside colleagues from marketing and corporate communications to help communicate, recognise and reward desired behaviours. However it is important to ensure that efforts to create a positive image are based on evidence, not spin, he says.

“In many ways HR must think and act more like PR, but take the best of its practices while avoiding its worst. A company’s reputation can only be created from fact and substance. Any hint of smoke and mirrors will quickly be uncovered and damage an organisation’s ability to attract, engage and retain key talent,” he said.

Make good news

One effective PR strategy is to communicate ‘good news’ stories. Robins suggested using a bank of employee champion stories that could be communicated internally and externally at regular intervals.

One firm that recently blurred the line between HR and PR is McDonalds through its high profile campaign to change perceptions of the ‘McJob’.

The firm’s reputation manager, Jez Longhorn, agreed that HR should be taking a more active PR role.

“HR can and should take centre stage in challenging negative perceptions and projecting a positive image of an organisation to the outside world,” he said. “For a number of years we’ve been putting forward a compelling body of factual evidence and employees’ own experiences to demonstrate that McDonald’s is a progressive employer, challenging this outdated stereotype.”

Don’t play ‘favourites’

Alexandra Davidson, employment law partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, said that negative press can also arise when HR policies are not followed.

“One common example is when management fails to take disciplinary action against a ‘favoured’ member of staff. If it involves someone who the management feels is important to the organisation – such as a star salesman – they may try to protect them. However the consequences of not taking action can potentially cause much greater damage to the reputation of the business with negative press,” she said.

So educating management on the wider implications of not following company procedures can be an important part of an organisation’s PR strategy.

“A policy is a policy and there should be no exceptions. If you have inconsistency it can also lead to claims of unfair treatment, which could potentially lead to discrimination claims and very bad press,” added Davidson.

HR professionals may not consider themselves to be PR experts, but it seems they do have a growing responsibility to keep bad press at bay.



Berwin Leighton Paisner

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