FTSE 250 car dealership giant Inchcape sent out a resounding PR message around high standards of corporate behaviour last week when it made a public statement to the city revealing that its CFO, Gijsbert de Zoeten, had ‘voluntarily’ resigned and would be standing down from the board with immediate effect.
The company said that the resignation came after an incident at a recent event, where ‘through a lapse in judgement, [de Zoeten] displayed personal behaviour falling short of the high standards expected of the leadership of the group.’
What can PR advisors to law firms and other professional services businesses take from the way Inchcape handled this issue?
Corporate norms on workplace behaviour and conduct have shifted. Following #Metoo and the positive impacts it and other social movements continue to make in the workplace and in wider society, we expect higher standards of conduct from senior executives and businesses are more prepared to communicate publicly when their standards have been breached. We don’t have any details about the incident that caused de Zoeten to go but, whatever it was, Inchcape deemed it serious enough to go public about, sending a strong PR message to its employees, clients, shareholders, suppliers and the wider market about the high standards of behaviour the company expects its people to uphold.
Today, companies including law firms are a lot more vocal about their initiatives on social responsibility, equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion, ESG and their wider values and purpose. Any behaviours and conduct that flies in the face of those values will be seized upon by the voices that matter most to those companies, including staff, clients and the media.
The decisive action taken by Inchcape also pushes against notions that companies still try to brush bad behaviour by their senior people under the carpet. Of course, this can still happen, but we have come a long way since the days when unacceptable behaviour by the powerful people at the top of the boardroom was simply tolerated by companies. There is just too much to lose for companies in a post #Metoo world, including their reputations.
Was Inchcape right to take the action it did, including being proactive in sending out a PR statement? I would say yes for all the reasons I’ve outlined here. Calling out bad behaviour and companies making a stand for the kinds of standards they expect is a good thing. The fact that Inchcape is also in the process of completing a major £1.3 billion deal at the time of this incident, will have had a bearing on its decision to go public proactively with this news.
But let me end with a note of caution. Getting the timing and tone of any PR response by a law firm or company in relation allegations of serious wrongdoing by its people, and whether that response should be proactive or reactive, has to be considered very carefully. For example, issuing a proactive and decisive PR response to guard a firm’s reputation when an internal investigation into the conduct complained of is still ongoing, could be prejudicial to the outcome of that investigation. This can have a serious impact on the individuals implicated in the investigation. And the PR response needs to be considered even more carefully if a regulator or the police might also investigate the conduct complained of, following the completion of any internal investigation.
Continuing to call out unacceptable behaviour by senior executives and making sure they are accountable is good corporate governance. Making the right PR judgment on how and when to communicate a company’s response sits alongside this.