I’m pleased to have been quoted by Fortune magazine today on how companies should manage their reputations in the face of attacks from former employees – an article sparked by Prince Harry’s allegations against the Royal Family in his new autobiography, Spare.

The Fortune piece says:

You can read the Fortune article here.

And here’s a full transcript of the comments I gave to the publication:

Is it common for employees to speak out against their former employer?  Why they might do this months or even years after leaving?

“Speaking out against former employers is something that happens quite regularly – sometimes for good reason, other times not – although it doesn’t always hit the headlines.

A good reason to speak out could be to blow the whistle on poor management – or even unsafe or illegal business practices. Bad reasons might be because of a personal grudge.

Workers often feel too afraid of repercussions to do this while employed by a firm, but freer to speak up once they’ve left. This may even happen months or years later if triggered by hearing of similar misdemeanours recurring – or galvanised by others coming forward.

A high-profile recent example was when, in 2021, more than 300 former employees of Scottish beer maker BrewDog hit out against the firm in an excoriating, widely publicised open letter.

They accused the brewer and founder James Watt of instilling a “culture of fear” throughout a company at which workers were “treated like objects.” They talked about a “toxic” culture “built on a cult of personality” which left employees feeling “burnt out, afraid and miserable.”

The craft beer firm is no stranger to controversy, of course: it has a habit of courting it for publicity. It has set itself up as ‘anti-sponsors’ of the Qatar World cup, made beers packaged inside dead animals, developed a pink beer for girls, sent protest drinks to Vladimir Putin and gone out of its way to pick fights with its more established rivals and the Advertising Standards Authority.

But this was one a controversy it didn’t seek and was bound to hit its reputation hard – and hammer its recruitment efforts. Who wants to work for a toxic employer?”

What can an employer do to save their reputation in light of negative public comments?

“How employers should respond to such events needs to be carefully judged on a case-by-case basis, weighing up the severity and validity of the claims.

An internal memo was leaked to the media that showed that, in BrewDog’s case, the company’s HR team initially planned to hit back by getting current staff to sign up to a response.

Given the credibility of the criticisms raised, that would have been a grave reputational mistake. The problem for BrewDog was that the accusations seemed to gel with its maverick persona. And public perception would have been that 300 people couldn’t all be wrong.

In saying the criticisms posed a “threat to all of our livelihoods,” the memo appeared to be a thinly-veiled warning to existing employees to toe the line. And coercing staff to hit back in this way would also have been seen as demonstrating the bullying behaviour being criticised, and so fanned the flames. It was also likely to have triggered even more opponents to come out of the woodwork.

In addition, it seems likely that BrewDog recognised many of the criticisms as true, and knew it would be hard pressed to refute them.

BrewDog wisely thought better of it and decided instead to take the criticism on the chin – with a personal message from its founder apologising unreservedly for the company’s shortcomings.

“Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, learn and act … We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always; and we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more. But most of all, right now, we are sorry.”

In the circumstances, this was the best way to protect its reputation – showing contrition, appearing human and taking the heat out the situation.

Other cases may need a different course of action, though. Where accusations are unfair and ungrounded, a company’s best approach will often be robustly to fight its corner.

And, in cases where accusations lack any credibility, it may even be wise to say little or nothing and let the claims founder on their own – though this tends to be the exception.

Silence is clearly the approach Buckingham and Kensington Palaces are taking in the face of the accusations from Prince Harry. Rarely is this something I would advise a company to do, but in this case, it just might pay off.

There’s an increasing public perception that Harry’s criticisms are petty, petulant and self-serving. While the problem for the Royal Family is that keeping quiet gives Harry a clear, uncontested platform to tell his side of the story, it does avoid amplifying the issues and might just keep ‘The Firm’ on the moral high ground.

Whatever the circumstances, in identifying and delivering the most suitable response, an external reputation management specialist may bring an invaluable outside view to help the company’s directors as it’s difficult for them to be truly objective. Advisors can also bring helpful experience of how similar cases have played out in the arena of public perceptions.”

How can a business ensure this is an isolated experience?

“Ultimately, while measures can be taken to deal with issues when they arise, whether we’re talking about the Royal Family or a corporation, the best way to avoid potential fall-out from employees, customers or other stakeholders is to look after them well in the first place!

When it comes to corporate reputation, prevention is always better than cure.”