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Corporate Reputation Oblivion, Comedians and the Laws of Physics

The Black Hole Move Poster

It’s funny what sticks in the memory, isn’t it? Odd moments which for some reason get caught and stranded on a mental filament and never quite dislodge.

For the Round-Up, one such moment was a film called The Black Hole, an unexceptional Disney sci-fi viewed, along with other seminal cinema moments like Star Wars and The Spy Who Loved Me, on the vast screen of the late, lamented Lewisham Odeon, a huge 1930s brick number and itself something of a black hole.

Anyway, in this epic, a space ship steers quite deliberately into the gaping maw of the universe’s most mysterious phenomenon and, amid much electricity and reversals of the laws of physics, disappears into the vortex…

To the considerable disappointment of the Round-Up, the corporate world seems to have taken this devil-may-care approach as some sort of example, wilfully aiming at reputational oblivion.

City and United

Last night’s news output was, for those who advise on such matters, a depressing catechism of corporate sin. Barclays managed to grab the wrong sort of headlines, first for the over-zealous attempts of its CEO to discover the identity of a whistle-blower and then as one of two lead players in BBC Panorama’s investigation into LIBOR manipulation.

Shell, meanwhile, ran into trouble for its choice of middleman in its attempts to secure rights to a Nigerian oilfield. This is a sandbank onto which more and more companies have drifted in recent times and more and more will. As Britain seeks opportunity outside the EU, ‘the way things are done’ elsewhere will present moral hazard and may well oblige greater tolerance for nose-holding than our binary times currently permit.

However, Lord of Misrule in corporate Pandemonium was undoubtedly United Airlines who have manged to render themselves an instant case study in ‘how not to..’

Briefly, it appears that the airline had overbooked an internal US flight. This in itself is not uncommon but the practice came home to roost when four of its own staff apparently needed to be accommodated in order to connect elsewhere. This caused a spiral of events in which a passenger was manhandled off the aircraft by over-excited security staff who bloodied his lip in dragging the poor man off down the aisle. His offence? Simply wanting to get home in the seat he’d paid for.

All of which was reprehensible enough but the airline then compounded the situation with a bizarre set of high-handed communications, qualified apologies and dubious mitigations. The incident, filmed as all things are these days, became a Twitter sensation with many pointing out that United’s behaviour means that they may soon have to start dragging customers onto their aircraft.

United Airlines’ corporate reputation is now under threat from the public hammer that is social media and mob outrage.

For air travel more generally, it’s a hoary old lament of the regular that the whole experience is ‘not what it used to be’. By which, of course, they mean that it is far from the exclusive glories of Pan Am, leg room, leggier stewardesses and all the martinis you can drink.

This is a by-product of two things which have come together to make air travel, and indeed travel generally, a misery in which the passenger often seems treated with a thinly disguised contempt;

The first is the significantly enhanced security that followed the 9/11 attacks. In itself reasonable enough, but the system does seem to have taken that as cover for a po-faced and disciplinarian humourlessness when dealing with any form of customer dissent.

It is simply unimaginable that in the days before sky marshals and similar, security staff and their employers would have felt morally empowered to behave the way they did in removing a sober, passive, fare-paying passenger who simply wanted to get home.

The second is that the massive expansion in air travel (one might add rail travel too) has commoditised the passenger, exhausted staff and strained the process to the point where the man in 13B is seen as a rather unpleasant inconvenience.

The Round-Up has worked in the travel industry and knows that some people can be boorish, some outright troubled and some can behave very badly indeed. The stress of mass transportation and all it entails exaggerates all those factors.

But travel trades in the practicalities of people’s day-to-day, it promises them the fulfilment of dreams and it asks us to entrust our very lives to it. United seem to have overlooked all three reputational vulnerabilities and taken ‘warm-blooded industry’ too literally. It could be messy for everybody.

Comic Timing

The Round-Up was intrigued to see the puzzlement of what one representative was pleased to call ‘the comedian community’ at not everybody finding their view of Brexit funny.

There is a certain sort of comic who is far cleverer than the rest of us and, suckled on the notion that you only have to say ‘Thatch’ to get a laugh, they became complicit with the various know-better-than-you groups against whom it is suggested many voted in the EU referendum.

It should, therefore, come as little surprise when those same voters, particularly outside the M25, elect to leave the theatre when being sneered at.

Comedy is about timing and now is apparently not the time to point and snigger at the punter.

The jester has traditionally existed to do three things; to entertain us through comic relief, often by pointing out the essential ridiculousness of the human condition. He also has the latitude to speak the occasional truth unto power and to do that on behalf of everyday folk who must be allowed now and then to laugh at those who presume to govern their lives.

He’s not there to take the part of that same elite in guffawing at the groundlings.

Perhaps some comedians just aren’t that clever, after all.

Reversal of Fortune

Back at the Black Hole where all this started, there was mention of the reversal of the laws of physics. Rather proving the metaphor is US President Donald Trump who has managed to invert what seemed immutable reputational laws by launching a missile strike on Syria; thus springing himself from the charge that he was a bit too close to all things Russian, giving the lie to ‘America first’ and having made his predecessors penchant for eloquence over deeds all the more stark.  Obama talked about ‘red lines’, Trump has actually drawn them, leaving everybody head scratching, not least because it’s hard to condemn a man for intervening in a situation where war crimes are being perpetrated on children.

There are dangers, of course, but if all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing, well…

Further Reading

A couple of pieces that have caught the Round-Up eye this week which may be of interest

He’s BRIC-ing it again but does Lord O’Neill have a point? And economists put forward ‘the BBC defence’ for the Brexit forecast debacle

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