ICELAND PUTS PURPOSE FIRST BY DISMISSING CORPORATE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
Founded on the Welsh border and operating out of Deeside in north Wales, Iceland remains an independent grocer with a number of sites across Wales and the rest of the UK. It has recently announced that it has dismissed corporate affairs director Keith Hann following Hann’s derogatory statements on Twitter and in blog posts.
The announcement included a statement from Iceland reaffirming the company’s Welsh heritage and firmly distancing itself from Hann’s comments. The spokesperson said, “Iceland has taken action in light of recent comments made by its director of corporate affairs, resulting in the dismissal of Mr Hann with immediate effect. We would like to reiterate that these comments in no way reflect the values or philosophy of our business. We are a proud Welsh company, with a long history of investment in communities across Wales, and apologise for any upset or offence caused.”
Hann, described as ‘colourful’ – see breakout box below – has been known to make brazen statements about his work and his former employer. A BBC segment from October 2013 shows his office door with a print out reading, ‘Iceland: Public Relations Centre of Mediocrity,’ tacked onto it. He was appointed corporate affairs director out of a consultancy role in 2017.
Iceland has worked hard in recent years to solidify itself among the pantheon of the purposeful. Its commitment to its people and its environment is clear across its communications – B2B and B2C alike. Its 2018 Christmas advert – that was banned by Clearcast – explored deforestation in a moving animation by Greenpeace which announced the grocer’s commitment to removing palm oil from its own brand products. It has since pledged to remove single-use plastics from its own brand products by 2023. But its governance commitment also includes a promise to ‘do the right thing in the support we give to the many communities where we operate’ and ‘in the way we treat our people and customers.’
While Hann’s past remarks may have reflected less than gloriously upon Iceland, his derogatory statements about the UK Celtic nations and the Welsh language are in direct violation of the company’s purpose.
This situation also brings to light the responsibility communications and PR professionals have when speaking publicly, in any forum. In this case, Hann’s tweets did not mention his employer, however, as corporate affairs director, he was the company’s spokesperson. Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, says, “Being rude about your customers is a terrible communications plan. Yet as a parade of business leaders have shown over the years, that simple truth apparently needs to be reiterated. Keith Hann has gone one further though – he’s been rude about an entire nation. And not just any nation – the one where his now ex-employer is physically based.”
Ingham adds, “And as for it being in a personal blog, well there’s no such thing. Everything we say, do and write is fair game these days.” Twitter accounts held by those in communications often include disclaimers like ‘Tweets my own’ or ‘Opinions are not the views of my employer.’ But, in an interconnected world, the distinction between a company’s statements and its representatives statements – on whichever channel – is virtually nonexistent.
Analysing Keith Hann's dismissal
by Stuart Bruce, PR futurist, Stuart Bruce Associates
Keith Hann has a reputation as a colourful character with a unique sense of humour. How many heads of PR for a national supermarket would appear in a BBC TV documentary and say: “I wanted to stay at Cambridge be one of those Dons who makes frightfully witty jokes and shags lots of young students… female students so there wouldn’t be do much competition.”
[And,] “You’re never going to convince the hardcore Guardian-reading media conscious person in London that Iceland sells anything other than total crap.”
If he survived this you might think he’d survive offending the Welsh nation. I suspect his sacking is perhaps less about his most recent offensive remarks and more that while his maverick approach to public relations and corporate affairs might have appealed to Iceland founder Malcom Walker it doesn’t work now when his son and current [managing director] Richard Walker is genuinely trying to run a purpose-driven business.
The practical explanation is the head of corporate affairs for a major Welsh business can’t make remarks like that about the Welsh language, but I suspect an alternative explanation is [that] it provided an opportunity for a fresh start.
Photo credit: Adcro