By Douglas Kruger
CREDIT where it’s due. I’ve rarely seen anyone handle an abysmal situation as ably as Chris Bown, chief officer for Health and Community Services, when he stood before the glare of the news cameras in the wake of headlines about a scandal in the rheumatology department.
Imagine the scenario. You wake up to another day in the Island, presuming that the next 24 hours will be very much like the last. Why shouldn’t they?
Then an apocalypse lands in your lap.
You didn’t ask for it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, but it’s here, and you’re the one in the hot seat.
Journalists are knocking at your door, baying both for blood and snappy soundbites. Real harm may have been done to real people in your community, and the extent of the fallout remains unknown. You must stand up and speak, for you are where the buck ultimately stops. And: go.
That’s what happened to Mr Bown, as a potential reputational Hiroshima erupted under his purview.
As we watched him facing a grilling on the news last week, my wife and I looked up from our dinner and commented: “I actually feel for him. Imagine having to handle an interview like this.” You can only imagine the sensitivities wrapped up in such an issue, the opportunities for missteps.
But as the interview progressed, our admiration grew for what turned out to be one of the most finely calibrated and pitch-perfect responses we’d seen to a crisis. My wife and I swapped comments to the effect: “That was perfectly done.”
We come from South Africa, land of a thousand crises. Our news tends to be a rolling succession of scandals, and we’re accustomed to watching slimy politicians go into denial, avoid questions entirely, or try to manage them away as merely the unimportant griping of a tiresome citizenry.
We’re even used to seeing open confrontation with journalists. Undisguised disdain. A tone that implies: “How dare you bother me with the bothersome subject of my corruption?”
For one quick sample of a hostile interview, hop onto YouTube and search “Julius Malema swears at BBC Journalist”. (My fellow South Africans will be familiar with his baffling assertion: “Don’t touch me on my studio!” It became a sort of cult phrase for a time.)
If you take an interest in PR, there are endless examples of bad interviews about. There was the chief executive of Rolls Royce, looking “casual and distracted”, while announcing the lay-off of 9,000 jobs. There was the head of a retail chain that advertises “keeping prices low for consumers” who was caught singing “We’re in the money”, before his interview.
There have been emotional breakdowns, angry storm-offs and perhaps worst of all, a foul-mouthed tirade in which the subject loses all standing by cussing at their host.
One of the worst ever was Prince Andrew on Newsnight – a piece that was not only branded “excruciating”, and “a textbook failure on a grand scale”, but which also generated some interesting legal issues.
So how refreshing to see a leader here take complete responsibility and exhibit zero weasel-tactics. Above all, Mr Bown’s responses were so refreshingly forthright.
It wasn’t a gentle interview. The journalists went for him. And rightly so. Such an issue requires an assertive grilling. The questions were hard-hitting, accusatory and angled to probe not only for information, but also for a sense of how much Mr Bown himself appreciated the extent of the suffering. That is often where it goes wrong. It’s like that old adage: “They won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Instead of rationalising, Mr Bown agreed. Instead of exhibiting defensiveness, he commiserated. And there was no undermining moment of prideful resentment, in which he added the word, “…but”. In matters of PR, it’s tempting to add that “but”. Instead, he simply expressed full ownership of the issue and its ramifications. He made strong commitments to resolve it completely, then to never permit a repeat. That’s how it’s done.
I’ve never met Mr Bown. And who knows how this will ultimately play out – the situation has by no means been resolved. And I feel very deeply for those who may have suffered needlessly as the result of a medical misstep long sustained.
But if step one is to stand up and take responsibility, without artifice or evasion, then certainly that much was masterfully handled. And that would appear to bode well.
Douglas Kruger lives in St Helier, and writes books to keep himself out of mischief. When the seagulls aren’t shrieking, he records them too. They’re all available from Amazon and Audible.