If you’ve got children going through A-levels and GCSEs at this time, then you don’t need me to tell you how much more stressful the experience has been this year than most.
Naturally, questions are being asked about the competency of the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and about Ofqual, the exams watchdog. But, in essence, a lot of the anger has been about the question of fairness. It’s an issue that comes up in the crisis communications courses that we run for a wide variety of organisations including law firms, fashion labels, financial services firms, charities and others.
Ofqual naturally emphasises fairness.
While a recent poll in the TES revealed that only around a quarter of teachers and other school staff in England believe that GCSE and A-level candidates will get a “fair deal” this year.
Just do a Google search for “GCSEs and fair” and you’ll get over 6million results. Do you remember as a child being told “Life isn’t fair”? Despite this sensible observation, as human beings we still have that powerful, visceral belief that it should be.
This noble and appealing concept is at the heart of so many media stories. Whether it’s dole scroungers or bankers getting away with it while the rest of the world suffers, inequality and the idea of someone cheating the system is meat and drink for journalists looking for a good story.
When organisations get into trouble and face crisis situations it’s very often an issue of fairness. It might be that a travel company has refused to refund a passenger, or a utility has sent a customer a huge bill. A hospital has apparently made someone wait too long for treatment while others have gone ahead. Perhaps a retailer or manufacturer appears to have ripped someone off.
The Black Lives Matter movement is based on fairness and any organisation that has discriminated against someone because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation ,identity or their physical ability will not only have broken the law but they’ll also be in terrible trouble with the media, both conventional and social.
It’s the same when we provide organisations with crisis communications training. Very often the issues are about fairness. That’s why we advise organisations on how to handle this very emotional issue.
What can you say if your organisation is accused of treating someone unfairly? Well, you can start by apologising. There’s a wonderful clip of a confrontation between Anne Robinson and Eileen Downey of the Britannia Hotel Group.
The company had been accused of treating some guests unfairly by taking their money but not giving them decent accommodation.
It’s a wonderful bit of car crash television. But how should Ms Downey have responded? Well, we would say that she should have started by apologising. This would have gained sympathy with the audience, silenced Anne Robinson (momentarily, anyway) and then allowed her to explain why the rooms hadn’t been up to scratch.
In any crisis situation an apology or, at least an expression of sympathy is essential. Whatever the question from the interviewer include this natural, human reaction in your first answer. You can then put the situation into context and explain what has gone wrong.
Having done that, you need to give details about how you’re going to tackle the issue of the unfairness here. What action are you going to take? How are you going to compensate anyone who you accept has been unfairly treated? By explaining what has gone wrong you’re in a good position to explain why you can’t perhaps offer compensation to everyone who has complained. Without passing the buck, you also talk about which other organisations are involved here or why your hands are tied. However, you need to show that you care and that you’re taking action.
It’s also a good idea to put the situation into context and to get some perspective. The journalist will naturally “beat the story up,” as we say to make it as big, in other words, unfair, as possible. Your challenge as the spokesperson (and we can help you with this) is to reassure your audience without seeming to dismiss the injustice here.
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