It might seem a big stretch from the value – or lack of it – of your company’s risk register to the current imbroglio over Huw Edwards and the propriety of his relationship with a young friend. But the way in which the media is debating what the BBC should have done, and when, and how it should have done it, has a lot to teach us about the practical management of risk. It illustrates the need to demonstrate to shareholders, employees and shoppers the presence of robust and tested plans to anticipate and mitigate the most likely and the most serious risks as we do business every day.
Whatever else it is, the BBC is our greatest – perhaps the world’s greatest – cultural institution. So anyone who seeks to use the current crisis to cause further damage to its reputation is both a knave and a fool. It is something pompous politicians and po-faced news competitors would do well to keep in mind. That’s not least because there is a very high chance their own shortcomings might be laid bare this time next week – just ask ITV about Phillip Schofield.
Actually, the task of identifying the risks in any organisation is pretty simple. Essentially it consists of using the biggest piece of paper you can imagine to consider what the worst things that might happen to the business are: risk assessment. Then you assess the likelihood of them actually coming to pass: risk appraisal. And finally you try and decide what you should do if they did: risk mitigation.
Viewed from this prism, it seems to me pretty likely that for a broadcaster, the on-screen talent is the area of biggest risk. That is either because they are endangered by others or because of some alleged or actual indiscretion. And it’s not as if this has never happened – think Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris. Indeed, allegations made that have proved untrue – as in the case of Paul Gambaccini and Jim Davidson – require just as much mitigation and can still have dreadful long-term consequences for all involved.
I have a lot of sympathy for the BBC and everyone else in these situations. Just consider the sheer scale of the threat, from the malicious to the mischievous or the just plain bonkers on social media, with the determination to take down even honourable people, companies or organisations. But – and this is the rub – that does not absolve anyone from making a serious attempt to assess, appraise and mitigate.
In the food and drink industry, these concerns are particularly pertinent. Our most successful brands are genuinely loved by consumers and shoppers. They are trusted with the most sacred task of all: feeding our people and the nation. They must maintain that trust in the face of all sorts of challenges, from the criminal through the legitimate to the inadvertent.
In every case, the task requires thorough planning and regular review and updating. It demands thinking the unthinkable – for example, every risk matrix I saw before 2020 identified a global pandemic as a hugely damaging but very unlikely possibility. On reflection, I must admit I never saw a credible plan to mitigate even 10% of the potential damage.
Only the BBC top brass will know if they had such a plan to protect the reputation of one of their highest-profile presenters and by extension the Corporation itself. My guess is their apparent paralysis was driven partly by legal concerns on privacy and their duty of care to their staff, but also by the realisation that they would quickly have a choice to make between throwing Edwards over the side and very significant collateral damage to the entire BBC.
If that’s where it has ended up by the time you read this, it’s worth looking right now at your business risk arrangements. None of us should end up having to make that choice.