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.