What can the ongoing RTÉ crisis teach us about trust and transparency? 

Warren Buffett famously said It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you will do things differently.” 

Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock with no connected devices for the last few weeks, you couldn’t help but be aware of the unfolding crisis at the national public service broadcaster RTÉ. What started as a revelation that the broadcaster paid Ryan Tubridy €345k over and above his official salary over a period of six years has since snowballed into a full-scale crisis which has seen multiple damning revelations and some of the most riveting Oireachtas hearings in memory. Where it will end is anyone’s guess right now.  

There’s never a good time for a crisis, but in this case the timing couldn’t be worse as Irish people deal with the cost-of-living crisis, high inflation, the housing crisis, and a multitude of other economic and social factors putting pressure on consumers’ pockets.  

Of course, we all love a celebrity scandal, whether we like to admit it or not, but for the seasoned PR professionals amongst us this scandal has been fascinating to witness for other reasons, not least the speed of the damage done to RTÉ’s reputation, the scale and complexity of the crisis, the contradictory versions of the truth emerging, and in some cases spokespeople unable to answer basic questions at hearings.  

We’ve probably all dealt with a crisis ourselves at some stage in our careers, whether it’s on behalf of our employer or a client, though perhaps not one of this scale. But large or small, a crisis is still a crisis and there are always ramifications. Lack of planning and foresight often results in crises escalating far beyond where they should. So, let’s look at the important lessons that senior leaders can and should learn from this: 

  • Act quickly  

Taking control of the narrative is key and never more so than in the digital age, where speculation and rumour can quickly spread out of control. Act quickly, but not too quickly, ensure you have all the facts before issuing a statement that could be interpreted as glib, resulting in necessary follow up statements or clarifications. In a crisis, immediately assemble and fully brief your key team, especially your communications advisors. Trust and act on their professional advice. It is their job to navigate your crisis with you so that the organisation emerges, if not unscathed, then certainly with the least possible amount of damage done.   

  • Own your mistakes 

People mess up, it’s part and parcel of life, and this extends to business dealings too, whether it’s a genuine error or a deliberate act to conceal information. However, once a crisis breaks it is imperative to make a full and frank disclosure of the extent of the issue. Continuing to conceal information or lying by omission will only make things worse when the full truth inevitably comes out, making the breach of trust far worse. Face the crisis head on by communicating clearly and transparently with all relevant stakeholders, however difficult or embarrassing it may be. The alternative is far worse. 

  • Fail to prepare, prepare to fail 

You can’t be prepared for all scenarios but you can be ready to act fast, when a crisis hits.  Live media interviews, appearances before committees, and public addresses to customers or employees all have one thing in common – you, the spokesperson, are on the spot and you only get one shot to communicate clearly, accurately, and in the appropriate tone of voice. Communication is often viewed as a ‘soft skill’ but any CEO who has been through a crisis knows that it is one of the most important tools at their disposable. Investing in communications training is invaluable preparation for dealing with these scenarios confidently and successfully.  

  • Focus on rebuilding 

Though the crisis is still unfolding, the priority of the new Director General, Kevin Bakhurst is to figure out how to rebuild trust with all stakeholders, from the political sphere to employees, and from commercial partners to the viewing / listening public and license fee payers, and though he has clearly taken steps in that direction, he has a long road ahead.  Once the eye of the storm has passed the organisation must quickly establish an action plan to restore trust and move forward, which must include measures to ensure that a similar crisis does not occur again. 

What has happened at RTÉ should be a wakeup call for CEO’s, MD’s, Leadership Teams, Executive Boards, and Senior Management teams up and down the country, both public and private sector to assess their crisis readiness.  

Talk to your communications advisors now to put a robust crisis plan in place to ensure there’s a roadmap should one arise. Assess the likely (and unlikely) scenarios which might lead to a crisis and prepare plans accordingly to mitigate the impact. Review your processes and practices at all levels of the organisation, especially related to health & safety and financial dealings, to ensure there are no ticking timebombs waiting to go off. And invest in communications training for the day when you might need it most. Don’t put it off. By acting now, you might prevent a crisis occurring or at the very least ensure you are equipped to deal with one when it does arise, minimising damage to the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build. 

As a casual reader or obsessive follower of the story as it unfolds, ensure you learn the news from a trusted source.  The rumour mill has been in over-drive the last few weeks and it’s important to arm yourselves with the facts.  As great as social media is for breaking news, when it comes to the facts, they can be scant.  With so much speculation online, and so few held to account for wrongful claims, rumours and misinformation, be careful what information you pass on to others.