Having had time to reflect, maybe as much as this ex-CEO now, when should you advise your CEO that it is time to resign?
Why did the board of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) association take three days to first back then sack their CEO, Gareth Swarbrick? Why did he refuse to resign of his own accord? Was anyone internally advising him that he should? And is it the job of the head of the comms team to do so?
Swarbrick clung to his £170,000 job for three days after a coroner’s inquest ruled that a two-year-old boy, Awab Ishak, died as a result of prolonged exposure to untreated mould in his RBH flat. The housing association had failed to take the necessary remedial action; the flat was judged by a Rochdale Council surveyor as unsuitable for human habitation.
Just because MPs and the media demand that heads roll, does not mean they should. But Swarbrick clearly could see no reason why he should resign. Over the course of several days, RBH issued media statements which followed the communication playbook: express empathy for those affected and apologise sincerely; explain what actions you have taken (and many policies and processes had been changed) to ensure that it doesn’t happen again; offer context and perspective about your values and approach.
But they missed the big picture. Amidst all the details of the story, the processes that went wrong, the absence of bad intent and the desire of people to apportion blame as well as learn the lessons, the death of a child especially gives rise to strong emotions (including no doubt among their customers – RBH’s tenants). And that being responsible and taking responsibility for the actions – or inactions – of your organisation is part of what being a CEO entails.
As the media and political storm grew, Swarbrick issued a statement: “The conversation around my position has begun to overshadow the most important part of all of this, which is that a family has lost their child. [Two clues right there as to why he should be resigning – the death of a child and now your refusal to resign is and will continue to be the story]
“Having spoken to the board, I can confirm that I will not be resigning. [The whole board then is in serious need of some sound reputation management advice]
“They have given me their full backing and trust to continue to oversee the improvements and changes needed within RBH.” [In the words of Georges Clemenceau, the graveyards are full of indispensable people. There will be plenty of others with the knowledge and skills to take things forward]
I have no idea what communications advice RBH received or whether proffered advice to resign was ignored. But it is the responsibility of communications people to be active advisers to their organisations, not just passive agents.
With no operational responsibility for the delivery of goods or services, the function’s job is not just PR execution but to seek out, listen to, respond to and advise on the external (and internal) operating environment. And so positioned, fearlessly speaking truth to power is part of that too.
RBH’s reputation was being trashed. And that surely is the purview of the communications team.