FRIDAY 30 APR 2021 9:38 AM

POST OFFICE SCANDAL: REPUTATIONAL CRISIS AND REFORM

On Friday 23 April, the Court of Appeal cleared the names of 39 former subpostmasters wrongly convicted of fraud, theft and false accounting. Public attention has turned to former Post Office leaders as the organisation’s reputation hangs in the balance.

What happened?

The Horizon computing system was developed by Fujitsu and installed by the Post Office in 1996. A technological error meant that thousands of pounds went unaccounted for, and the working subpostmasters were held responsible.

In 2009, stories of convicted subpostmasters began to reach the public media, with over 700 employees facing convictions and several serving prison time.

The Post Office has come under fire for wrongly prosecuting subpostmasters on the grounds of unreliable computer evidence, and for prosecuting with the knowledge that postmasters would not receive a fair trail.

Not only does this affect public perception and confidence in the trail, but also in the Post Office as an institution. 

Matt Cartmell, director and founder of Carta Communications, says, "Tone of voice is incredibly important when dealing with a corporate mishap of such magnitude, particularly considering the huge impact that it has had on the lives of so many people."

From a communications perspective, the scandal has forced the Post Office to implement immediate and fundamental internal changes, to manage the reputational crisis moving forward. However the public is demanding greater transparency and accountability from former Post Office leaders, before it can accept claims of reform.

Post Office focuses on internal reform and forward facing comms

In a statement released last Friday, Tim Parker, Post Office chairman said, “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures. Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.”

Parker repositions the Post Office as a separate corporation to the previously united one, under the leadership of former CEO, Paula Vennells. The statement works to sympathise with the victims and distance the ‘historical failures’ from the present Post Office brand.

“Post Office continues to reform its operations and culture to ensure such events can never happen again,” added Parker. Indeed, the Post Office is seeking to move forward from the criticism and focus on the rebuilding of its reputation.

The press release outlined actions that have been taken to achieve the ‘fundamental reforms’. This included the appointment of two current postmasters as non-executive directors to the Post Office Board to influence strategy and programmes affecting postmasters.

It has also implemented a programme to improve culture, practices and operating producers, alongside improvements to initial recruitment and training.

The strategy from Parker is one of internal reflection and immediate reform, to try and retain its current employees and separate itself from the previous leadership.

Nick Read, Post Office chief executive, said in the latter part of his statement, “since arriving at the Post Office 18 months ago, my focus has been on resetting the culture at the Post Office and forging a substantive partnership with our postmasters. We are determined that they must come first in everything we do because without them there is no Post Office.”

Read points out that he joined as chief executive after the previous leadership team had been dismantled and former CEO Paula Vennells stepped down.

“Not only does the Post Office show believable contrition, but it points out its sense of separation from its own unsavoury past – while also presenting a plan for ongoing reform so that such a disaster can never happen again. This is textbook crisis management, but of course it is unlikely to make any of the wronged in this story feel any better”, says Matt Cartmell.

While the Post Office looks to move forward and implement internal changes such as new leadership hires, the public is demanding that it look back and hold those who facilitated the miscarriage of justice accountable.

The public demands accountability from former leaders

As a government owned company, it was reported that many of the wrongly accused workers felt as though they were fighting a faceless institution. However, former Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells has come under fire for her role in the prosecutions.

Vennells was CEO for seven years between 2012 and 2019, during which time more than 700 people were wrongly prosecuted for crimes, based on evidence from the faulty Horizon system.

Under Vennells leadership, the Post Office continually denied it had any faults and pursued the prosecution of its employees

This week Vennells has stepped down from her role as non-executive director of several boards, including Morrisons and Dunelm. There have also been public calls for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE, which was awarded in 2019 for service to the Post Office.

Government officials in power at the time of the prosecutions are also being called to take responsibility.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, welcomed the Court of Appeal's decision to overturn the convictions, he said, “Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again.”

The Post Office must now work to build a better culture and rebuild its reputation, but it is clear that the public are not willing to accept promises for reform without reflection and acceptance of responsibility.

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