Season 2

Ep 6: How to Stop Your CEO from Saying Stupid Sh*t

With Renu Bakshi & Julian Treasure

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We all put our foot in our mouths once in a while. A joke that isn’t funny for all the wrong reasons, going into too many details about just about anything, or slagging off your place of business. It's easy to do, but hard to bounce back from. In front of family or friends it can make for an uncomfortable meal, in front of an audience it can mean disaster.

In this episode, host Brian Tomlinson, leads us through examples of the good, the bad and downright ugly when it comes to CEO blunders. Renu Bakshi, an International Crisis Manager and Media Trainer will get into the nitty gritty of how to lead your CEO away from common pitfalls and renowned speaker and communication expert Julian Treasure is on hand to give us some useful tips on how to take to the stage with confidence, or at the very least preparedness.

Listen in, for tips on how to steer your CEO in the right direction and get the PR team home on-time.


Brian Tomlinson: I think this story will give you a pretty good idea of what we're going to talk about today. It's 1991, a man in a suit and tie steps to the podium. His name is Gerald Ratner.

Julian Treasure: He was the managing director of a huge jewelry company in the UK.

Brian Tomlinson: We're going to let Julian Treasure, a communications expert, tell this story.

Julian Treasure: If you wanted a wedding ring or an engagement ring in Britain, you'd go to Ratner's and he went to a conference at the Institute of Directors at the Albert Hall and stood on stage and attempted to be witty. He said, "People ask me why our jewelry is so cheap."

Gerald Ratner: How can you sell this for such a low price? I say, because it's total crap. And we even sell a pair of earrings for under a pound, gold earrings as well. And some people say, "Well, that's cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer's." But I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings. But anyway ...

Julian Treasure: Well, the next day, that speech got reported in a red top, which is what we call the popular or gutter press in the UK. And people don't like being taken for mugs. So the customers of Ratner's rebelled and stopped going to the shop. The share price at the company plummeted. He had to resign and the company eventually had to change its name and trades on under a different name. I don't know what he was trying to say, but he didn't say it very well and the effects were devastating.

Brian Tomlinson: You're listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Brian Tomlinson. What you heard off the top, it's a fairly strong example of how wrong a speech can go. Gerald Ratner wiped 500 million pounds of the value of his own company virtually overnight. Don't worry, he's okay. It took a while, but he's fine. He even wrote a book about the ordeal, but for a long time afterward, his name became a byword for how not to behave if you're a leader of a company; and the fallout, hundreds of jobs lost. The damage to the brand was massive. For us, the people who work in comms, it's the stuff nightmares are made of.

So in today's episode, we are going to confront that nightmare. We are going to figure out to put it bluntly, how to stop your CEO from saying stupid shit. We'll also cover how to handle the media properly and how to address an audience in the best way possible, because don't we make some of our worst gaffes when we're nervous, feeling out of sorts, are a little unprepared?

In order to do all this, we are bringing in the big guns. In a few minutes, we're going to hear from Julian Treasure who has done six TED talks. He's a top-rated international speaker whose expertise is critical communication. He was also the voice who brought you the Gerald Ratner story. But first I want to introduce you to someone else, someone who regularly picks up the pieces when CEOs say the wrong thing. Meet international crisis manager and media trainer Renu Bakshi.

Renu Bakshi: I create a lot of havoc. No, I'm kidding. I'm a former long-time journalist. I'm now a crisis manager and a media and communications trainer. I also do general public relations. The favorite part of my job is doing press conferences.

Brian Tomlinson: And so many of us know, journalists frequently jumped ship for communications jobs for a variety of reasons. For Renu, the decision came from tragedy.

Renu Bakshi: I was a journalist for 21 years. I loved journalism. I loved telling stories. I loved telling stories of the underdog. I loved breaking news. And then suddenly we had breaking news in my own family. My mom was diagnosed with stage four never-a-smoker lung cancer, and she was given three months to live. I made a decision at that point that I needed to spend time with my mom. I was an anchor and a senior reporter. I was at the pinnacle of my career. But cancer is one of those things as many of us know, at the end, it comes fast. And so after I lost my mom, I kicked a can down the road wondering who I am, where I am, what to do now. I never missed the vibe of a newsroom. And so a friend asked me if I would help a client of his with a communication strategy.

Brian Tomlinson: One client led to another and the rest is history. Renu says her phone rings when any number of things happened.

Renu Bakshi: The world has changed in the last several years with people becoming more aware of discriminatory practices and all the movements now that we have towards diversity and inclusion. So I get called for those types of issues a lot.

The other crises that I manage are external things like anything that would change the context in which you operate your business. The biggest one we've just come out of is the pandemic. Other things like natural disasters, those are calls that I get. And also product concerns. It'd be kind of cool if Apple called me about their iPhone 12 and France's claims about radiation because that would be fun. But things like that, there's some concern with our product, how do we mitigate any damage that we might face and what do we do to fix it.

Brian Tomlinson: Renu believes strongly that any and all communications need to come from a place of honesty. Forget the spin, be real, but how do you get leadership on board?

Renu Bakshi: I use scare tactics. You show the CEO examples of CEOs who said stupid shit and got in a lot of trouble, not just personally where they had to step down, but also the hit to the bottom line, which really hurts the most. So I like to show examples of people who have said dumb stuff and gotten in a lot of trouble.

Brian Tomlinson: Another good example to really beef up Renu's scare tactics. It comes from the former CEO of BP Oil, Tony Hayward. He was at the helm during the 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was an environmental disaster, one of the worst in the Earth's history. The spill impacted 180,000 square kilometers of ocean. It was awful.

Renu Bakshi: And the CEO was doing a media interview and he said, "Nobody wants this crisis over more than I do. I just want my life back." Yeah, okay. We've got people affected who live on the shoreline. We've got so much wildlife and sea life affected by this massive oil spill, and he just wants his life back. Within months, he had to step down from his role.

Brian Tomlinson: One of our upcoming episodes is all about apologies. But without turning to an apology expert, most of us instinctively know Hayward did not do a good job. What was missing?

Renu Bakshi: Empathy. Every leader needs to express empathy. The crisis that your company created is not about you. It's about who's been impacted.

Brian Tomlinson: Renu says, this is where bringing in an outside consultant, someone like her can sometimes help because let's face it, it can be hard to get tough with the same person who signs your paycheck. Another recommendation from Renu is to get training for your CEO long before they're expected to step into the spotlight, because those could be some blinding lights.

Julian Treasure: It's very important to be trained to deal with the media these days.

Brian Tomlinson: That's Julian Treasure, the multiple TED talks guy I mentioned earlier, the one who specializes in critical communication.

Julian Treasure: We're in a little bit of a dance of death with the media now. There's short attention spans, and I think that results in a lot of pretty adversarial interviewing, aggressive interviewing, interrupting. So you have to be trained to withstand that, to stay on your horse, to keep on message and to sound genuine. And to be genuine indeed. I know there are always going to be things which you are not allowed to say, confidentiality or simply things that would be very bad for the company to talk about in public perhaps before they're completely sorted out internally. But it's important to come across as a genuine, honest, straightforward person, not somebody who's evasive, avoiding questions, dominating perhaps, or being aggressive and certainly not saying stupid things.

Brian Tomlinson: So how do we survive that dance with death? And if we work in comms, how do we help our employers survive it? Renu has both been a member of the media and has dealt with some loose-cannon CEOs as a consultant. She's got some tips for us. As we mentioned before, get the media training before you need it.

Renu Bakshi: It's like an earthquake. The difference between a crisis and a disaster is preparedness. So if you send somebody in unprepared, you can expect them to respond in kind. So if I've been brought in, there's a crisis. And right before we're going to do any interviews, I say three things, "never get angry," no matter what, never get angry. Unless you're expressing anger for what has happened, and that's a legitimate response that supports the victims or the people that were harmed. Never get angry.

Two, there's no such thing as a dumb question. Reporters, sometimes they'll ask extremely basic questions. The CEO might think, "Why are they asking me this basic question? That's just dumb.” No, it's not dumb. That reporter is asking basic questions, A, to make sure that he or she understands the context completely, and B, to maybe lead into the story. Maybe it's part of the story to lead into the bigger issue. And three, there's no such thing as no comment, never say no comment. No comment is the kiss of death.

Brian Tomlinson: The kiss of death, the dance of death. No matter the metaphor, we're into some serious business. Renu says, no comment usually comes across as I'm guilty and I don't want to talk about it.

Renu Bakshi: Let's take an example of an employee who's behaved badly. You can't talk about an employee in public. There's contracts in place, employment laws in place, but you can say, while I can't discuss specifics surrounding this case, what I can tell you is that under employment law, and then give what your policy is or whatever that might be. And if you give that statement that I just said, that's at least something media can use. You look like you've participated in the story and you get a voice in the story.

Brian Tomlinson: All this makes me think about all of the tell all celebrity memoirs out lately. Britney Spears, Prince Harry, Jada Pinkett Smith. Does Kevin Hart have a memoir out yet? Somebody let me know. Why do these folks choose to bear it all in public when they really don't have to? Sure, there's the hefty advance, but also maybe the rich and famous one is say in the public's perception of their lives, maybe there's a need to take by control of their image.

Renu Bakshi: If you don't tell your story, someone else will. So why would you relinquish your brand story to someone else? Don't do it.

Brian Tomlinson: So what does it look like when things go right? Renu's best example involves a very tragic incident that happened in Canada in 2008.

Renu Bakshi: Maple Leaf Foods had a crisis, a listeria crisis. So tainted meat was on store shelves. More than 50 people got sick and 23 people died. The CEO, Michael McCain just got right up in front of this crisis. Didn't hide, didn't deflect, didn't deny, didn't cover up, he got right out in front of it and accepted responsibility for what had happened.

Michael McCain: My name is Michael McCain. As you may know, listeria was found in some of our products.

Renu Bakshi: He outlined the actions that the company had taken to remove all tainted meat from store shelves and clean their labs and change their practices. He just hit this crisis head–on, owned it. He showed visible leadership.

Michael McCain: Tragically, our products have been linked to illnesses and loss of life. To Canadians who are ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I offer my deepest sympathies. Words cannot be used to describe–

Renu Bakshi: How he removed fear was remarkable. Here's what we've done, here's what we're doing, and here's what you need to do.

Brian Tomlinson: In the face of tragedy and disaster, McCain hit the perfect mark with the media and the public. That same year, Michael McCain was named Business Newsmaker of 2008.

Renu Bakshi: When you do the right thing, you actually can make gains in a crisis. This is an important lesson for communication strategists in-house or out-of-house to learn. When you do the right thing, when you act with empathy, you take action and you're less concerned about your bottom line, you can actually make gains. And that's what happened with Maple Leaf Foods. They had lost a massive amount of market share immediately following the listeria scare. But after Michael McCain made his public statements, their shares actually started going back up. People had faith in this company and its leadership.

Brian Tomlinson: That's a corporate best-case scenario. If I've ever seen one when put in the hot seat, Michael McCain and his team did well. BP Oil's Tony Hayward and others like him, not so much. But if we think back to our first example of Gerald Ratner, he wasn't under great pressure where he crapped on his own products.

Gerald Rather: Because it’s total crap.

Brian Tomlinson: What's really remarkable is he planned that speech, even ran it by his wife beforehand, who surprise, surprise, absolutely advised against making the joke. So what happened? What went wrong? Julian Treasure says it should be no surprise if a CEO bounce up on stage and says something stupid. He says CEOs will sometimes do this simply because they're a little out of touch.

Julian Treasure: It's difficult to be humble when you're really senior because you're used to people doing what you say, taking orders, listening to you and not being listened to so much. It becomes more one way traffic. It's hard to restrain the ego. So if that's the case, they tend to go on stage and it's about them. And that's a big mistake to make when you walk on stage. It's never about you. It's about the audience. It's about giving them a gift. Then there's a connection that's forged with the audience based on giving, which is really lovely.

Brian Tomlinson: Like so much of the content we make, it isn't about selling. It's about giving. In this podcast for example, we hope that you come away entertained and informed. It's a gift to you. The audience and to the people in our industry talks, speeches and public-facing efforts should be approached in the same way. But another reason a person does something regrettable in front of an audience is nerves. We aren't all performers by nature.

Julian Treasure: And there are plenty of amazing people who find public speaking quite scary. Many of the people who stand on stage and do these things are actually introverts. You'd think they're all extroverts, but they're not. The prime example of it, of course, is Susan Cain, whose wonderful TED talk was all about being an introvert. But she found that very scary and she had to train a lot in order to make that work. She's now learned to do it. I wouldn't say she enjoys it particularly, but she's learned to be good at it.

Some of the greatest leaders in history have been quiet people who listen, like Gandhi, for example. They aren't necessarily going to be the best people at expressing themselves in large groups. So there are tricks of rhetoric, there are tricks of speaking, there's breathing, there's projection, there's stance. Apart from anything else, there's connection with the audience. There's all sorts of things that we can learn. Stagecraft, if you like, those of us who've been on stage hundreds and hundreds of times, it's a scary place to be.

Brian Tomlinson: I don't know about you, but when I often address a crowd, I get these little butterflies in my stomach and I need my music to pump me up. No matter how your nerves present, Julian says, go with it. Let it fuel you.

Julian Treasure: It energizes you and getting some adrenaline in the system, it helps you to achieve peak performance. But I'm not nervous to the point I'm shaking. And I love being on stage because it's probably the time when I'm most conscious. There's a lot of people looking at me and cameras and stuff like that. In that crucible, I feel very, very conscious of what I'm doing, the gestures I'm making, the way I'm using my voice, the intonation, the pacing, the volume, everything. I find it stimulating and it's always a growing experience because I'm always learning how to do things better, but being that conscious is very exciting to me.

Brian Tomlinson: Okay, so let's get down to some basics with some stage tips from TED talk titan, Julian Treasure.

Julian Treasure: I personally am in awe of people who can walk on stage and use maybe a mind palace or some sort of mental system and speak for half an hour with no notes. I can't do that. I use slides and I have a presenter view and a monitor, and so I know what's coming up next and I've practiced the whole thing. So I do have a very good grasp of where it's going, what the point is, what's the journey that we're all going to be on.

Brian Tomlinson: And no matter how bad you or your CEO may want to, don't read a speech word for word.

Julian Treasure: I think it's very disappointing when somebody comes on stage with a podium and plunks down a load of pieces of paper and starts reading them verbatim. That's a big skill to master, to read stuff and have it sound as if you're making it up on the spot. That's quite tough.

Brian Tomlinson: So tough. It's nearly impossible. Don't do it.

Julian Treasure: Don't put up on screen what you're saying because people will read it faster than you can talk it, and then they're bored by the time you get to the bottom. So I tend to use pictures to illustrate things or graphics so I know what I'm talking about, they know what I'm talking about, they can see something that's tangential, maybe slightly oblique, but illustrates the point. And they're listening to me.

Brian Tomlinson: And remember the old saying, "practice makes perfect," but forget the stage and the cameras, Julian has some excellent parting words that have to do with overall communication, the kind we should all live by. He says, the two things to look out for are the tendency to look good and the tendency to look right.

Julian Treasure: And they can easily become much more significant when people get more senior. If our conversation is all about impressing people being impressive, that's pretty shallow and it's not going to last forever. And again, being right, if you're making other people wrong, it's not nice to be around somebody who's doing that a great deal of the time. The secret of a lot of this is to retain consciousness when you're speaking or listening. These are skills. And secondly, to have the humility to be seeking to learn all the time from other people, from life and situations to grow to do things better. So that combination of consciousness and humility I think is very powerful.

Brian Tomlinson: And always ready with the scare tactics. Here's Renu with some final words of warning.

Renu Bakshi: Everything becomes public. Everything has the potential of going viral, so expect that and conduct yourself accordingly.

Brian Tomlinson: Words to live by. Loo, no matter how careful or empathetic you are, our feet land in our mouths Once in a while we're human. But when it comes to saying really stupid shit in public, I hope we've helped lead you and maybe even your CEO away from trouble. Be sincere and genuine. People know when they're being fed, aligned. Own up to your mistakes. Apologize and do something to make the situation better. And if the story involves you, make sure your voice is heard. When it's your turn to step into the spotlight, be prepared. And listen to the people you trust. Heed their warnings if they offer you some and if at all possible, enjoy yourself. Let the adrenaline fuel you. You have a message to share, so don't be scared.

Today, our guests were international crisis manager, media trainer, and speaker Renu Bakshi, and international keynote speaker and critical communications expert, Julian Treasure. I'm Brian Tomlinson, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from JAR Audio. Join us next time when, I'm not sure exactly how to say this, but we're going to get into how to deliver some difficult news.

Jeff D'Silva: So many kind of mischievous things have happened online or whatever it is that I'm just like, "I'm just going to do it with the understanding that if my mom found out the joke that I said, which I won't repeat here, that she will understand that it's in the name of comedy."

Brian Tomlinson: If you enjoy the show, tell your friends, tell your CEO, tell your CCO, tell whoever keeps stealing my lunch from the work fridge.

Fridge Thief: Brian, I swear it isn't me.

Brian Tomlinson: You can also follow us on your podcast app. And leave a review, we'd love to know what you think. Until next time ...

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