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Your reputation in a crisis: why an apology can be cheaper and more effective than litigation

Sorry written in the sand

When well-known local celebrity Freddie Mercury (not that one) came off worst in a tussle with a QC’s dog, the barrister’s legal response and warnings to the media backfired. Our CEO Melissa Davis looks at why.

A dog is our best friend, they say. Which is true for many people and many circumstances – but probably not quite as true when your dog suddenly becomes headline news for savaging a much-loved seal.

Especially one so dear to locals near Hammersmith Bridge that they’d named it Freddie Mercury – because of its apparent love of performing for the watching audience.

To be brutally honest, I never really expected to be writing those last two sentences, but the last week has shown that you never quite know what’s coming your way.

And that was certainly the case for the QC, whose Sunday walk with her pet dog went more than slightly wrong.

Her pooch, off its lead, attacked poor Freddie in front of shocked onlookers. Some recorded it. Some took pictures. A ‘savage attack’ was the verdict.

Those images inevitably ended up in the national news, with subsequent calls for the barrister concerned to be prosecuted. In short, anything but a simple Sunday stroll.

Freddie, to the dismay of his adoring public, had to be put down. Despite being rushed to a wildlife hospital, his injuries were too severe.

The dog’s owner rapidly became the subject of much speculation. Who was she? Why was her dog off the lead?

But then, as if the situation wasn’t bad enough, she made a decision she’ll surely regret. Obviously, not as much as not putting a lead on her dog but still, one which gave any litigious members of the legal profession a valuable lesson in handling media attention.

Making a bad situation worse

Rather than simply issue a statement apologising for the incident, she chose to instruct lawyers. The firm warned the media that she was not to be named and that doing so would be an invasion of her privacy – although obviously not as much of an invasion of privacy as poor Freddie had experienced.

It was, to be frank, what PR professionals would regard as a head in hands moment. The kind of decision we would advise against but usually only find out about when it’s too late.

Relying on case law (such as in the Cliff Richard case) that is much despised by the press about rights of suspects in investigations is always tricky.  Another issue with the dog owner’s instruction of a law firm is that this was done when there was no coverage suggesting the (then-anonymous) individual was being investigated, which only made the situation worse.

Undeterred by warnings, the media marched on and named her as Rebecca Sabben-Clare. Along with where she went to university (Oxford, it turns out), the fact she was a QC and the value of her house.

With her legal bid for privacy in tatters, she then belatedly issued a statement saying how ‘heartbroken’ she was by the incident, which to be fair I’m sure she was. It can’t have been her best Sunday.

However, it was too late. Her tactics and those of her lawyers just ramped up the criticism. TV and radio presenter Jeremy Vine was among those to tweet their displeasure at her decision to hire lawyers to try and keep her name out of the media only for her then to issue a statement, in that same name, hours later.

A bad situation made worse by the view that there’s always a legal argument. Sometimes, when it comes to the media, there just isn’t.

Sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word

Ms Sabben-Clare may have thought that warnings from a firm of lawyers would have been enough for news editors to call off the dogs, which is ironic in the circumstances. The reality was that it just made news outlets more determined to name her and almost certainly encouraged them to print more details about her.

The lesson from this? A heartfelt apology, an expression of sympathy for Freddie and his fans, and a sense of understanding of what those who watched it had gone through and the outcome may have been very different. Especially if it had been issued quickly.

It gives the media few other places to go. You take the hit in one story, the news moves on and it’s over. Yes, it might not be great but it’s about minimising the damage and the time in which you are the news.

Instead, the tactics used inflamed the situation, led to multiple follow-up stories and dragged the story out until the statement had to be issued anyway.

Being the owner of the dog that attacked Freddie is bad enough. Being known for trying to stop the media saying that you’re the owner is even worse.

Sorry may seem to be the hardest word, sang Elton John (a close friend of the real Freddie, as it turns out). But with the media, sometimes it’s the smartest move.

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