P&O’s Reputation Hits the Rocks: But How Did They Get It So Wrong?

P&O’s Reputation Hits the Rocks: But How Did They Get It So Wrong?

P&O Ferries made a drastic decision last week to make hundreds of staff redundant in order to reduce spending and keep business afloat. But at what cost has this come to its reputation? Account Executive Molly dives into the story’s timeline of PR faux pas here.

Pre-pandemic, P&O Ferries enjoyed a buoyant business model reportedly valued at £350 million, employing thousands of staff around the UK both on board their ships and in operations and affiliations.

But the financial toll that the Covid-19 pandemic took on the ferries branch of the P&O family led to 800 of its seafaring staff being made redundant on 17th March in favour of agency staff costing a fraction of the UK minimum wage.

The news of redundancy was delivered to employees in a cold three-minute video message; redundancy took place effective immediately and staff were told to “refrain from any public comment and […] avoid posting any comments or views on social media”.

The swift culling of over 800 jobs during one of the toughest financial periods since the 2008 recession has left the nation asking how P&O’s PR department could imagine that this move would go down well, and where the humanity was throughout the whole process.

Add to the mix that the P&O is owned by DP World, a Dubai-based multinational logistics company with a revenue of $8.5 billion, and the sting to the story becomes that little bit sharper for staff now facing unemployment after years of loyalty to the company.

Communications experts far and wide have condemned P&O’s handling of the situation, with one commenting: “It is no PR disaster, it’s a colossal failure of compassion, transparency and humanity.”

It is clear that P&O’s attempt at muzzling staff was never going to work in the digital world dominated by user-generated content and conversation; and that’s where the P&O team failed at social media strategy too. Its failure to see staff as individual people with their own stories to tell, and its indifference to the impact it would have on hundreds of lives, meant that the consequences of the situation were overlooked, external factors were not mitigated, and as a result we saw a complete PR meltdown.

Reports that staff are only receiving redundancy pay if they sign NDAs adds to the shambolic handling of an event that is quickly snowballing from bad to worse. The company is remaining silent as workers march on docks in protest, fueling the downward spiral of its reputation with customers and publics alike.

After the news broke, the hashtag #boycottpando reached 3.5 million users within 24 hours and the company’s brand index score from YouGov, averaging brand health, reputation and recommendation among others, plummeted from 13.9 to -4.1.

The company’s overall brand health is drowning with sister branch P&O Cruises also taking a hit. P&O’s communications team now needs to admit failings to its staff, apologise, work with the government on firing and rehiring, and go back to the drawing board in an attempt to either transparently reverse their decisions or compensate for their actions.

Most importantly, P&O need to come away from this learning exactly what not to do when addressing financial pressures; in future, staff should be forewarned well in advance by HR teams (in person, not over video) who could work with unions to establish the best possible redundancy plans, and a timeline of events to work to. The company’s press office should then liaise with the media to publicly announce redundancy and how they are committed to helping staff. This should be done by press conference and social media announcements ensuring staff are able to voice concerns or queries.

Interestingly, this PR crisis has allowed other travel and tourism companies to step forward and boost their reputations - both EasyJet and Jet2 announced they would fast-track cabin crew applications for those affected by the P&O redundancies.

So, in short, if your business is facing turbulent times, make sure you plan for the future, mitigating all potential social, financial, political, and reputational risks before charging ahead. Communicate transparently and humanely with all affected parties and set a timeline to work to, whether that means announcements, rebranding, or redundancies.

Or you could get in touch with the friendly Shooting Star team who are happy to discuss crisis and reputation management to help your business do better! 

MH

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