The greatest gaffe ever – 30 years on

Gerald Ratner Tweets his regret about making 'that' speech 30 years ago to the Institute of Directors in the UK

It’s exactly 30 years since Gerald Ratner, Chief Executive Officer of the eponymous jewellery business stood up at a conference of the UK Institute of Directors and made a few jokes at the expense of some of his company’s best-selling products.

He described a set of cut-glass sherry decanters that Ratners Group sold for £4.95 as ‘total crap’ and joked that while a set of earrings was ‘cheaper than a prawn sandwich from [the UK retailer] Marks & Spencer’…‘I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer’.

Hundreds of millions of pounds were wiped off Ratners Group’s market value as shoppers deserted the company – and Gerald Ratner’s remarks became a classic in the reputation management genre.

Ratner, who now works as a motivational speaker, amongst other things, said his remarks weren’t meant to be taken seriously and blamed the media for over interpreting his words.

As I’ve reminded executives many times when delivering communications training, the media are not to blame here.

Many is the executive who’s slipped up by trying to be too clever or, worse, trying to be funny. Leave the jokes to the comedians, is always my advice.

The story is whatever the journalist decides it is. I tell clients, ‘Don’t expect them to see past your joke. Or to overlook a remark that is inadvertently funny.’

‘I want us to be as well-known as Disney,’ declared the then head of the Institute of Management Consultants as he spelt out his marketing goals to members at the organisation’s annual dinner a few years ago.

‘IMC President wants institute to become Mickey Mouse Organisation’ read the headline of my diary column that week.

I was standing next to the institute’s public relations adviser as I wrote his remark down. I saw her cringe at his words. Either she hadn’t advised the President properly or, much more likely, he hadn’t listened to her advice to take that comparison out. Big mistake. Huge.  

Crisis? What crisis?

Competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, mid-ocean Rowing 3,000 miles late last year across an ocean is the toughest thing I have done so far. With just over four months left to the start of this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I know how fortunate we were not to have had our training disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet the crews I know taking part this time have adapted well to cope, spending more time on their ergometers, pumping iron in their home-made gyms and honing the navigation, nutrition, and boat maintenance skills that will keep them alive when circumstances change. 

The nineteenth century military strategist Helmuth von Moltke maintained that no plan survives wholly intact after contact with the enemy. It’s a lesson we kept in mind during our row as key pieces of equipment broke, our power failed, and promised breaks in the weather failed to materialise.

It’s also a lesson I’ve applied in my day job as a communications director. Crisis communications strategies have to be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, adaptable even in the heat of an apparent disaster, and honed through rehearsal. Persuading senior executives to take time out to prepare, to role play, stress test, and to learn with you, is vital.

Company directors and ocean rowers alike will do well to consider that crisis management isn’t just a manual to pick up and dust off when things go awry, it’s an approach and a mindset that will determine whether you succeed or fail.