Cover-up or cock-up? Corporate scandals usually boil down to one or the other.

In the still unfolding drama of the Post Office Horizon saga it’s a grim combination of malfunctioning technology and disturbingly inhumane treatment of innocent people. To add insult to injury, confusing corporate communications have made a truly awful situation infinitely worse.

Communicating in a crisis is not about telling lies or covering up misdeeds. It should be about anticipating and understanding public sentiment and accepting responsibility. It’s essential to express empathy with those affected and explain difficult situations honestly and factually. And to make clear how what went wrong is being put right.

From ‘the buck stops here’ to an orgy of buck-passing

It’s taken years to drag out information from the organisation and its ex-CEO and former CBE, Paula Vennells. They’ve been accused of hiding behind a protracted public inquiry and formal investigations, adding yet more pain and distress to victims. Not to mention tarnishing the reputation of a once-admired national institution. The eventual apology was late in the day, limited and clearly fine-tuned by legal teams. Hard to align such an attitude with an ordained priest and potential candidate to be Bishop of London.

On top of that, four nights of TV drama that humanised the real-life victims has stoked unparalleled level of public anger (a phenomenon that’s sometimes known as the ‘identifiable victim effect’).

Taking lessons from Boeing’s transparency

Boeing CEO David Calhoun had a near-catastrophe on his hands with the blow-out of a ‘plugged’ window on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max9. It’s the latest crisis the organisation has faced following two earlier, fatal crashes of the 737 Max.

Admitting he had been ‘shaken to the bone’ by the incident, he said:

“We’re going to approach this by, number one, acknowledging our mistake. We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way.”

He showed contrition and genuine human emotion. Exactly what the Post Office and Paula Vennells failed to do.

There are costs to breaking the cardinal rules of communications

Instead of empathy, the Post Office practised callousness. Instead of humility, it displayed arrogance. And instead of honesty, it lied.

If it was a private sector company the share price would have tanked. As it is, its relationship of trust with its staff and customers, has been well and truly trashed – permanently, in all probability.

The details of the Post Office scandal may be specific but there are lessons for all organisations. Namely: don’t screw up. But if you do, don’t lie about it.

You will most certainly be found out and the damage to corporate reputation may be fatal.

Communications won’t solve the crisis, but they can manage the fall-out

Speed is of the essence. Sympathy for victims is essential. Organisations need to quickly establish trust as a reliable source of accurate information, anticipating media questions and lines of enquiry – ideally answering before anyone has the chance to ask.

Few organisations come out of a crisis without a dent to their reputation and finances but the quality of communications can help manage the level of the damage and its long-term implications.

Screenshot of the Post Office 'Who we are' page

Today, the Post Office website still boasts that it’s ‘an anchor for communities’ and ‘one of the most admired institutions in the public sector’. It’s hard to imagine these words will stay there much longer.

Written by Peter Davenport, Senior strategic consultant at Definition