The BBC and crisis management: Why the second mistake can be worse than the first


BBC director general George Entwistle makes a statement to the media after giving evidence to Commons Culture Committee on BBC response to Jimmy Savile affair in London on October 23, 2012. (ANDREW COWIE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
November 13, 2012

As the leaders of the British Broadcasting Corporation can surely attest, the hardest part of managing a crisis isn’t dealing with the crisis itself. It’s making sure another one doesn’t happen in short order.

If you haven’t been following the melodrama at the top of the respected British broadcaster, here are the basics: The BBC first came under fire last fall for its decision to shelve a news report on a former TV personality accused of widespread sexual abuse of children. The report was about the late BBC TV personality Jimmy Savile, and questions swirled whether the shelved report was an attempt to protect the BBC’s reputation. Making matters worse, the broadcaster got in hot water again after airing an erroneous report on Nov. 2 that wrongly accused a former senior political official of child sex abuse.

In the aftermath, the top of the venerable institution has been in turmoil. BBC director general George Entwistle resigned on Saturday after just two months in the job. (His predecessor, Mark Thompson, started as the president and CEO of the New York Times Co. on Monday.) And then on Monday, the BBC announced that two of its senior executives—director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell—would be “stepping aside.”

What’s interesting is that they were not asked to do so because of their roles in either of the two episodes. In fact, the BBC said, neither “had anything at all to do” with the Nov. 2 report and both executives might return to their positions following the current probe of what happened. Rather, the request appears to have much more to do with creating clear lines of management during a major organizational crisis.

That’s because, however bad the alleged shelving of an investigation into a former employee may look, what appears even worse is when a management team makes a big mistake again so soon. Entwistle stepped down on Saturday not because of his leadership during the Savile decision—he was not in charge at the time—but because the Nov. 2 report raised questions about a breakdown in a journalistic system that should have been at its most vigilant in keeping the faulty news from airing. After a mistake as big as the one allegedly made with the Savile report, you’d expect leadership to catch the next one.

This is the challenge of crisis management, of course. At the very moment an organization needs its most senior people to batten down the hatches and prevent another error from happening, they are often distracted by investigations and pressured by questions about what happened in the past. Chains of command become fuzzy, confusion can reign and mistakes happen yet again.

That appears to have been the case here. A summary of the BBC’s internal review, which says an “editorial sign off process” separated “business as usual stories” and “Savile-related” stories, found that the “editorial management structure had been seriously weakened” and “the editorial leadership of the team was under very considerable pressure.” At the same time, the divided editorial sign-off process led to “ambiguity” over who had responsibility over the Nov. 2 story. With management focused on questions about the Savile report, and decision-making suddenly divided into two groups of people, critical decisions fell through the cracks.

When a crisis happens, resources are naturally funneled toward cleaning up the problem rather than preventing another one from happening. Management changes—such as separating the sign-off on business-as-usual stories from crisis-related ones—seem like a great idea until they result in decision-making chaos. The best leaders recognize that the aftermath of a crisis is also when an organization is at its weakest, and pay extra attention to how effective any new “safeguards” truly are at preventing a bad situation from getting much worse.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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