Both Bosses and Interns Can Damage Companies


In the age of social media controversies can grow rapidly and lead to permanent damage to a company’s reputation. It also means that young, unskilled interns can do as much damage to a company as the bosses can.

In July this year Primedia Broadcasting’s CEO was forced to appear as a guest on his own company’s Monday shows to defend a controversial tweet that ‘went viral’ over the weekend. The tweet had made reference to puppies and babies (who happened to be Black) and asked which were cuter. There was widespread condemnation that the post was racist.

In this case a young intern who was running the large company’s social media accounts over the weekend had been the author of the controversial tweet. It highlighted the damage that a young, unskilled person could do to a large company if not sufficiently trained and supervised.

Damage to the reputation of PR firm Bell Pottinger on the other hand was clearly the fault of senior management. Founder of the company, Lord Tim Bell, is an icon of the PR industry. He was credited with the glory for Margaret Thatcher’s successful political campaigns and rode the wave of that celebrity for many years, representing some less than savoury political leaders across the globe.

Surprisingly Bell agreed to be interviewed on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight this week – by respected journalist Kirsty Wark. The interview has been referred to as a ‘car crash’ and it clearly did little to bolster the public relations ‘guru’s’ public image!

During the live interview Bell had to TWICE take his cellphone out of his pocket as it started ringing! After the first rejected call he showed the screen to Wark, as if the identity of the caller would be of interest to her – she didn’t comment so we don’t know who it was. Maybe the ghost of Margaret Thatcher was calling him to tell him to end the interview!

In the interview Bell tried to distance himself from the Gupta account – that lead to the company he founded being removed from the PR industry’s UK body. Wark was quick to point out that he had been the person who flew to South Africa to meet with the Guptas and had reported back to staff that this would be a great contract for Bell Pottinger.

Bell was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to boast about his exemplary clients. The best he could come up with was that he represented FW De Klerk! And it wasn’t actually Chillean dictator Augusto Pinochet he represented – it was the Pinochot Foundation! That was supposed to make a difference!

Bell did make reference to the fact that he suffered a stroke last year. If he is performing below par because of medical issues a close friend or family member really needs to take him aside and stop him from damaging his reputation further. Then again after the damage that this controversy has done to his reputation it is unlikely that he will be working again.

Company CEO James Henderson was the boss when the decision was made to accept the controversial account. Clearly he takes most of the blame for the damage done to the company. He resigned this week and news has just broken that the accountants have been brought in to find a way to sell the company.

The other big controversy of the last two weeks has been the university student who was mistakenly credited with R14 million in her account rather than R1 400. She never asked for the error and the fact that she didn’t act as wisely as she could have doesn’t mean that I don’t have sympathy for her plight.

A young person who is poor enough to qualify for a NSFAS grant suddenly sees more money in her account than she could ever dream of earning in a lifetime! I don’t know how I would respond to such seductive provocation!

The error here seems to be with the private service provider Intellimali who are supposed to manage the distribution of funds to students. There is no news yet about who at the company is responsible for the error – it could be a junior clerk or someone much more senior.

There is no evidence that these kind of errors are widespread – so it may just be a once-off error. If it is it could turn out to be a very expensive once-off error for the company. These are public funds and a number of public entities are responsible and accountable for them.

Political leaders are already very wary of private companies operating in the educational environment. A scandal like this is just the stick they need to drive business away from a private company and back to something like NSFAS’s own SBux.

Intellimali will have to show that their service is better and cheaper than NSFAS running the operation inhouse if they want to keep getting government work.

Share on Social Media

Leave a comment