Is the reputation of one employee bigger than the organisation?

23 March 2015, Blog

According to former BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, “there is nobody who is bigger than the BBC’s reputation.”

He was of course referring to the incident which has seen Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson suspended from his job at the BBC which has provoked an extraordinary reaction from viewers and fans, including Prime Minister David Cameron, leading to one million people getting behind an online petition #bringbackClarkson.

There is little doubt that Clarkson is the star of the show, if not the BBC.

With 350 million global viewers Top Gear earns more than £150 million in revenue for BBC worldwide. The stature of both the show and Clarkson’s role has left the BBC with a juggling act between their own reputation and managing one of the biggest conflicts in the Corporation’s history.

But could the BBC have done more to avoid this as it is not the first time Clarkson has got himself into hot water? Is it guilty of letting him get away with other misdemeanours in the past?

Whilst succession planning is key to any business to ensure a big hole is not left when someone departs an organisation, such a situation, as the one faced by the BBC, raises questions about whether enough has been done to manage his reputation during his time as lead presenter of the show. It presents a real dilemma for both PR and HR departments as every organisation wants its stars to shine as its good for business, but at what price?

Consequently, and arguably of their own making, the BBC is now faced with a tricky PR conundrum.

Will it back down to public pressure but risk a similar occurrence in the near future; or stick to their employee conditions for such behaviour and not allow it to just ‘blow-over’, thereby risk losing Clarkson to a rival channel such as Sky.

But as every business board in the country would have concluded with their own people management challenges in the past, no one is indispensable. Look at David Beckham when he left Manchester United after a being thrown the boot literally by Alex Ferguson. The team’s supporters could have been forgiven that it was the end of the world with one of their best ever stars leaving the club. In stepped Christian Ronaldo and the rest is history. Similarly Sky faced a similar issue when highly popular presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys were caught up in a sexism storm – has it really affected the broadcaster? Not according to audience figures which were up 7% last year on the previous season.

Arguably there needs to be a coming together of HR and PR to manage such situations, or even better ensure they do not reach this stage. HR needs to manage current talent and spot the stars of the future. PR needs to advise when reputations are becoming out of control and harmful for the image of the organisation as well as promote the new talent coming through.

Despite controversy being at the core of Clarkson’s highly marketable brand, the BBC must protect their own reputation and keep their code of conduct. As billionaire, Warren Buffett once said, ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently’.

Caragh Jones is a consultant at JBP’s Bristol Office


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