I’m glad to say that I have never been in charge of a business on the receiving end of a major media attack.
I’m glad to say that I have never been in charge of a business on the receiving end of a major media attack. I was working with the BBC, however, when the Jimmy Savile scandal broke and I saw how everyone struggled to deal with the tide of allegations that were made against people in the corporation.
It was also remarkable how much information, much of it supposedly confidential, found its way into the papers or the hands of politicians.
Two of my BBC board colleagues did have prior experience of this kind of situation, and they gave very clear advice: we had to go through all our records and find out what lay in there, so that we could bring out and address any problem areas ourselves, or at least be prepared for further revelations when they came. We could not assume that anything would remain private.
The BBC, of course, operates in a highly public position. Many people believe that all of its affairs should be in the public domain, even things that would normally be confidential or private.
Most commercial businesses, even those that are quoted, do not experience the same scrutiny.
But the fact is that everyone’s affairs, private or not, are increasingly at risk of exposure, from disaffected employees, investigative journalists, or sometimes just determined members of the public.
Modern technology makes it easier to find out confidential things about a business, and it certainly makes them easier to publish.
At the same time, the standards of what is acceptable in business have changed, as debates about corporate tax avoidance have illustrated.
That combination is forcing much greater levels of transparency in the business world, and concurrently creating higher levels of risk if a business is doing something that might look unethical or improper, or even just too aggressive, when exposed.
Retail is no exception to this trend, and there are many recent examples of media attacks on retailers’ product sourcing, for instance, or safety standards, or tax affairs. Comparison apps allow customers to see exactly how competitive a store’s pricing is, and social media and review sites enable the rapid spread of unwelcome stories about retail practice.
Traditionally, retailers traded in a world where the way we sourced our goods, where and who they came from, how we priced them, and how we did business generally, were largely out of sight of our customers.
Some of these things counted as ‘trade secrets’. Now every aspect of our way of doing business is potentially public information and can spread among customers in hours.
So I think we all need to heed the advice given by my colleagues to the BBC. We cannot assume that any of our affairs will remain private. Now is a good time to look at our own records, to examine the way we do business and to make sure that we could be proud of it were it all made public to our customers tomorrow.
- Simon Burke is chairman of Hobbycraft