P&O – all at sea with its reputation management

P&O – all at sea with its reputation management

They say the definition of integrity is doing the right thing, even when no-one is looking. But how do we come up with a word for doing the wrong thing when everyone’s looking? Maybe we should ask P&O boss, Peter Hebblethwaite?

The chairman of the British ferry operator – which dates back 185 years – sacked 800 of his staff last month, without proper consultation, and replaced them with cheaper agency workers.  This was a callous move that has devastated families, enraged unions, angered politicians and hit the headlines of every media outlet in the country.

Quite how he thought he could get away with it, knowingly breaking the law as he did, is a mystery but what is clear is that it has prompted protests across the country, resulted in questions from parliament, calls to change legislation – and left a corporate reputation in tatters.

The outcome of his actions is that P&O is potentially facing legal proceedings after failing to keep to the processes required when handling the sensitive issue of staff redundancies.

We’ve been especially close to this issue at Freshwater as we work with Thompsons Solicitors, who has been standing up for the mistreated P&O workers by providing the RMT union with legal advice.

As comms specialists, our job at Freshwater is to advise clients on how to communicate internally with staff and externally with customers and other stakeholders. Often the process can be complex, and so planning has to be both detailed and strategic.

However, it doesn’t take a team of experienced PR professionals to tell you the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t take an expert in reputation management to see that P&O’s course of action was never going to be a winner in that respect.

Even Hebblethwaite himself has admitted that he is “fully cognisant of the reputational cost to the P&O Ferries brand and me personally”, while Grant Schapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport, has called Hebblethwaite a “pirate of the sea”, accusing him of “disgracefully shredding the reputation” of the company.

The fact that P&O has said that it will compensate workers with a redundancy package may mean that few staff will take legal action against their former bosses. And perhaps the decision makers, knowing this all along, decided the risk was worth it, and counted on the media and political storm settling down in time.

But reputational damage usually has long term consequences – and this is where P&O may still come a cropper.

Will people want to spend their money with a company that acts so scandalously? Consumers are much more sensitive these days to the ethics of those who want their custom. Will we want to travel with P&O, or will we vote with our ferry crossing feet and go elsewhere?

The reality is that, as we emerge from the pandemic and start to travel more again, we are likely to be more cautious and discerning about what we do. If P&O can be so careless in its treatment of staff, how can we be confident it has acted properly in other ways – not least with our safety? All businesses, including the likes of P&O, will need to listen and respond more diligently than ever before to the concerns of their customers, staff and suppliers.

For many in the UK at least, ‘normal’ may well involve a ferry crossing for a holiday in France or Ireland, or a nice little cruise, and we previously may have trusted P&O to get us there. Only time will tell whether that trust has gone for good. If it has, they will only have themselves to blame.

This article was written by our chief executive, Angharad Neagle, and featured in the Western Mail on 4 April 2022