Businesses must beware the Coronavirus ‘Court of Public Opinion’

The Coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it for our entire society.

Billions of us are in lockdown, living and working from home, instructed by our politicians to refrain from venturing outside unless it is vital to do so.

As a result, businesses are now faced with making extremely tough economic decisions that will have a huge impact on their staff, as they struggle to come to terms with the fact their income and cash flow has dried up overnight.

Yet, the dangers for the business community caused by the Coronavirus pandemic extend far beyond the bottom line. Every bad decision faces being tried by the Court of Public Opinion.

The public are the judge, jury and executioner. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram they can convene at any time of the day or night.


Every firm must remember that good communications are front and centre of a modern, digital-savvy business. One poorly executed decision can prove extremely damaging for even the most popular business and destroy brands overnight.

Already several big names have fallen foul of the court. Britannia Hotels was the first to face trial. The company sacked workers at its Coylumbridge Hotel outside Aviemore and then threw them out of their accommodation that day. The image of staff, mainly young people, trudging down the road clutching their belongs will live long in the memory of hotel goers.

The callous approach to staff was compounded by days of stonewalling, followed by a flimsy and inept defence that the whole thing had been an ‘administrative error’. The public jury did not swallow this.

Meanwhile, Britannia’s local rival, Macdonald Hotels, stepped in and offered the spurned workers rooms at their hotels. Other smaller, local companies also offered rooms.

It now seems the staff are back in their old jobs. But the damage to Britannia’s reputation has already been done.

Tim Martin at the Wetherspoon pub chain lived down to his public profile, sacking thousands of staff, advising them to get jobs at Tesco. The equally cuddly Mike Ashley of Sports Direct insisted his employees were “essential workers” because they supplied sports gear at a time when public and private gyms were closed.

Within days Ashley was back pedalling furiously as the Court of Public Opinion swung into action.  He issued a letter which said he was “deeply apologetic” for a series of blunders in the way his chain had reacted to the coronavirus lockdown.

Reputational Damage

The retail tycoon also admitted his request was “ill judged and poorly timed” and said he would “learn from his mistakes”. And he offered to his delivery trucks top the NHS. Fair play for backing down in the face of a furious public and social media backlash but, again, the reputational damage had been done.

Everyone understands that businesses are staring into the financial abyss due to Coronavirus. This is not an easy time for anyone but approaching difficult decisions with humanity and sensitivity is surely the way to go.  

It is vital that companies, which have spent years developing good reputations in their communities and beyond, recognise that one kneejerk reaction could undo it all at a stroke.

With careful management, proper governance and strategic use of government support, companies can survive coronavirus. On the other hand, bad management, lack of empathy and poor staff relations can see them summoned before the Court of Public Opinion, which can destroy their brand and reputation very quickly.      

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