The suggestion that any business or organisation can emerge from a crisis, played out in the media, with their reputation enhanced, is often met with scepticism.
This is hardly surprising, given that some of the world’s largest companies manage to do the opposite and demonstrate that it’s not the crisis itself that brings them down, it’s the way they handle the media in the midst of it that’s their undoing.
But last week I heard a “masterclass” in the broadcast equivalent of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Large swathes of north west England had been flooded not once, but twice in just a week, bringing transport to a halt, forcing residents out of their homes and businesses to close, as the filthy tide of detritus flowed on.
Instead of Christmas cheer, it was a case of cheerio to Christmas in many villages, with decorations afloat and presents sodden. Finding some bonhomie seemed surely as likely as Scrooge begging you to pull a cracker.
But step forward Julian Rayner, one of three brothers who run the kitchenware accessories business Lakeland.
He went on Radio 4’s PM programme to be interviewed by Eddie Mair, a journalist who is up there with John Humphrys in my view, for posing the toughest, trickiest questions.
Fortunately, Lakeland had already got some goodwill “in the bank” after writing to customers to thank them for their support after its Windermere store and distribution centre in Kendal were flooded.
Rayner began by revealing that 10 colleagues had slept overnight in a warehouse to try to limit the damage and even staff whose homes had been flooded had come in to work to help.
This sent a clear and powerful message: customer service is at the heart of what we do and staff loyalty is tremendous.
Mair asked if Rayner could be tempted to move the business somewhere less prone to flooding, and frankly, who would have blamed him if he’d said “yes”. But Rayner instead declared, “You wouldn’t move me out of here at all, Eddie, I love it here. This is the most fantastic area of the country.”
Then he did his bit for local tourism to boost the recovery effort: “What we want is for people to come up here and visit us for the summer – not just for my business, but for all the guest houses and restaurants and pubs and hotels here.” He wanted to emphasise, by giving some context, that even in that dreadful week Cumbria was “open for business” – a message to gladden the hearts of all those trying to make a living both in and near the flood zone.
His only “hiccup” was when he said “Whatever you might read in the media, the reaction is fantastic. On Saturday night, when it was absolutely throwing it down with rain, we had somebody in our shop helping us out when her own home was being flooded; since then we’ve had people phone up and say, ‘Can we donate some kitchenware’…”. But the presenter did not punish him for “shooting the messenger”.
Admittedly, Mair was not in full attack mode, but what Rayner had clearly thought about was how to turn this interview into something far more productive for his business than talking about what listeners might have predicted: simply describing how high the flood waters had risen, how many ruined fondue sets may or may not have ended up in a skip or how many online customers would be without their turkey basters this Christmas (definitely a First World festive crisis, that one…).
He had surely planned to talk about the company’s fantastic and supportive customers, its wonderful, loyal staff and its passion for that part of the country.
Organisations hit by a crisis should capture this Dunkirk spirit and preserve it not in aspic, but in a Lakeland microwave-safe, dishwasher-proof plastic box.
Like the best cooks, Rayner had done his preparation, but he spoke effortlessly and with passion.
For that, I raise a glass-effect goblet (£4.79) to him.