TalkTalking one’s way out of a crisis

For all the perks of their position, no one envies a CEO in crisis. While some can manage the spotlight and maintain their roles, others succumb to public pressure and are forced to resign. What separates the two?

Consider Dido Harding, the Chief Executive of TalkTalk. She is in the hot seat after her company’s website was hacked last Wednesday, the third time in eight months. The company’s stock price has fallen by 10 per cent while four million worried customers are on alert for data theft and unable to cancel their contracts. Whether Ms Harding could have done anything differently to prevent the attack is beyond the scope of this column, rather it is interesting to consider how she has thus far survived the spotlight by three clever rhetorical strokes.

First Ms Harding has positioned the attack as an issue for the industry as a whole, thereby diffusing the focus on her and her company: “Cyber crime is the crime of our era, of our generation, every single company in the world probably isn’t spending enough money on it – we are not the only ones.”

Ms Harding has also deflected attention away from her onto her customers: “Our customers will judge us and judge me, and if I was busy worrying about my job or my bonus right now I’d be doing my job extremely badly – and I’m not, I’m focused on doing what’s right for customers.”

Finally she has emphasised the support she has from her chairman and shareholders, thereby indirectly rebuking critics who challenge her right to remain in post: “My chairman has spent most of the weekend in the office working with me, so I’ve seen a lot of my largest shareholder.”

By responding to the scrutiny in this way she shown how mindful she is of the broad range of audiences she knows she has to deliver for – at all times. Her critics may yet be appeased though as time passes their position weakens while hers strengthens. While enduring a crisis as a CEO is never an enviable experience—just ask Martin Winkelkorn, former CEO of VW—Ms Harding has thus far shown it can be a manageable one.

Jenny Brindisi, Account Director, Public Affairs