25th August 2022
As I’ve now passed the rubicon in my working life where my more fresh-faced colleagues were born after I’d already made several career changes, I think it’s not too hackneyed to relearn the lessons from one of my favourite cautionary tales of the 1990s.
As they warned during WWII, “loose talk costs lives”. In the corporate world that warning could translate to ‘careless CEOs cracking jokes costs companies’.
In 1991 Ratners had a thriving presence on the high street selling jewellery and odd little curiosities such as sherry decanters complete with glasses and silver trays for bargain basement prices. The more uncharitable may have said that the brand was synonymous with tat but be that as it may it was hugely popular with 2,500 stores and a 50% market share in the UK. As business acumen goes, the owner and CEO, Gerald Ratner, was no slouch.
Unfortunately for Mr Ratner – and remember, this was before the world walked around with mobile phones in their pockets with more sophisticated recording tech than contemporary television studios – he made a few unfortunate jokes at the expense of his merchandise at an IoD speech in the Albert Hall.
“Total crap” was the phrase which sunk Ratners but the nails on the coffin were well and truly hammered in by a follow-up joke that their 99p earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.” Within a few short years Ratners had disappeared from the high street and with shares at 2p each, Gerald Ratner had lost everything. In just a few minutes, the ‘Sultan of Bling’ had destroyed a family business empire which had taken decades to build.
There for the grace of God go the rest of us. Most of us are not responsible for firms with £100m-plus profits but human nature is drawn inexorably to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Who hasn’t stared forlornly at their screen after sending that email, safe in the knowledge that attempting to use the entirely useless recall function will only serve to underline your stupidity? Who hasn’t forgotten their friend’s fiancé’s name or worse, called her after the ex? Life is punctuated by a series of painful social faux pas.
Words matter and those unguarded moments give others an insight into the inner workings of our very being. Once said, it’s hard to take it back.
Could Gerald Ratner have saved his family business and the ensuing heartache? Having betrayed his customers’ faith in him and his brand it would be difficult, but all things are possible. I don’t know who was advising him at the time but appearing on Wogan shortly afterwards to try a put a lid on things didn’t help, nor did ignoring the calls of previously friendly journalists. Even hiring Gazza to appear in Ratners’ adverts at the height of ‘Gazzamania’ couldn’t undo the damage.
Ratners is a sobering case study of how fragile brands can be. Pre-Twitter, it took six weeks for customers to stop turning up at the shops – today it would happen overnight. Think, think and think again before you speak in public, inculcate a sense of pride in what you do and never treat your customers as mugs. Oh, and make sure that your crisis comms plan has a longer shelf life than a prawn sandwich.
If you need help with reputation management, get in touch with the MCE team today!
By Jonathan King
Bonus content: MCE Director, Symon Ross, interviewed Gerald Ratner during his journalism days at the Belfast Telegraph - Gaffe that caused downfall tells story that is pure gold