Doing a Ratner

Posted on Saturday, November 28, 2020
In: Editorial
Written by: The Editor

In colloquial UK business English – particularly in the City – the term: “Doing a Ratner” is short for: Really really screwing up in a totally avoidable way by doing something monumentally damaging either because there was no process to avoid it in place or there was but it was recklessly ignored. In an age where Chief Officers are empowered with large digital audiences that they can reach in an instant, Ratner’s story is a worthy parable.
Gerald Ratner inherited his father’s jewellery business in 1984. Within six years he had turned a small retailer into a multimillion-dollar empire. That all came to a shuddering halt when he was a guest speaker at the Institute of Directors on April 23, 1991, attended by over 6000 business people and journalists.

As a result of some ill thought out and reckless comments in his speech, Ratner destroyed both his reputation and business empire in less than 10 seconds. As you can guess the media had a field day with this, and his company’s shares dropped £500 million in a matter of days.  Some people say that any press is good press, but on this occasion, the negative media made Ratner’s position untenable. He fell foul of the first rule of ignoring ‘reputational risk’ by saying something that was really better left unsaid – it didn’t matter what his intentions were (he later claimed it was intended to be a joke), the words themselves were the problem because when written down no-one could tell what the original intention had been. We at Baily’s learnt the lesson from this a long time ago, in our professional lives of working in online communications and e-commerce before taking on the most loved hunting directory, and have continued to keep it in mind over the years since we took on custodianship of the Directory.

The risk of negative  ‘tabloid media headlines’ is usually enough to give any Chief Officer worth the name sleepless nights and the usual mitigation strategies in the modern world are part of what is called a ‘Disaster Recovery Plan’   having a plan so that, when things do go wrong, you’ve already thought through the process and can take the first steps to ensure what needs to be done to solve it, but also how can we demonstrate we have learned from this, and have those responsible been identified and removed (in many cases with punishments defined if the actions were deliberate and malicious). Such strategies are common in business and often include the favoured parallel move of many bodies in both private and public spheres – change the name, and Hey Presto! a new untainted body rises phoenix-like from the ashes of the old discredited one, shedding any ‘tainted’ staff on the way.  Sometimes, however, the moment of recklessness is so severe that even that won’t save you – as Gerald Ratner found to his cost when his comments about a prawn sandwich being more expensive and lasting longer than the jewellery he sold resulted in the entire business disappearing forever from the UK high street.

Fast forward to today, and the move to a much more online world means that the PR maze has become much more complex to navigate. Reputations are no longer local but instantly global, and off-the-cuff comments can be relayed nationally or internationally within hours, minutes or even seconds. The key tenet of modern reputational risk is that it does not matter what your intentions were, it is perception, often from a hostile and sensation hungry media, that governs how the event will be remembered

The rise of social media, in particular, makes it much easier for things to be accessible to people that you don’t know within a very short time. As a result, ‘identity’ is now also becoming much more complicated, and is now subject to three tests: Who am I?; Can I prove to the required level of trust that I am who I say I am; and, Am I permitted at this very moment in time to be carrying out the task that I am attempting. It is a sad truth that a lot of organisations are not as good as they should be about applying these vital tests, asking the right questions and acting accordingly.
The big ‘hot potato’ of sharing and manipulating information online is regulated as a result of things such as GDPR – a regulation that seeks to offer a degree of protection from information misuse, including the precautions that must be taken before initiating any form of video conferencing.  GDPR Article 28 outlines requirements to ensure there is a contract in place with regard to the processing of that personal data because of the ever-widening definition of the term ‘processing’ but there is no doubt that such definitions include both team meetings or inviting people to an online discussion via a video conferencing platform service. To comply with GDPR the statutory security provisions it describes must be followed with penalties for the theft, and or misuse of such video data; this ‘misuse’ can even be as simple as recording and sharing something that was never meant to be recorded, and any later editing of the file breaks the rules. The continued media focus on the security issues inherent in the Zoom tool in particular, and all conferencing platforms in general, should remove any doubt that we’re never fully secure when sharing information of any type online. All involved in any form of Field Sport need to be a lot more careful with the words we use, and we should always be prepared in the event of a breach, and above all make every effort to think about how we avoid doing another Ratner.