A corporate crisis hits. Terse phone calls are exchanged. A chief executive paces a dimly lit boardroom late at night. While he frantically negotiates, an entourage of suited advisers glance anxiously at their boss. Someone senior complains loudly about how much they’re being paid.
Succession is the latest big-budget TV drama to plot this scenario. Holed up in glass and steel offices, the Roy family make aggressive bids for power as their family business, Waystar Royco, struggles to recover from reputational catastrophe after a number of serious incidents on their cruise lines emerge in the press. Logan Roy, the family’s patriarch, uses threats and political influence to maintain his authority, while his wayward son Kendall tries to wrest control from him.
Legal and PR experts are relatively minor characters in Succession, but in a real corporate crisis, they’re the ones on the front line. So how do senior employees really approach these situations – and what should they be doing? And is the scandal and backstabbing of Succession unusual among real senior executives?
In a word, no, says a lawyer who has worked in-house at a large UK company. They cite executives bringing prostitutes to the office and executives dialling into rivals’ calls as among examples of bad behaviour they’ve had to deal with. In one instance, they were asked to cover up a data breach: “The chief executive said, ‘I don’t care if it’s illegal’.”
In one scene in Succession, Logan Roy tries to prevent the FBI from entering the building. “Tell them to fuck off,” he says. The lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous says: “Executives do say things like, ‘We’re not cooperating, tell them to go fuck themselves, I’m going to shred everything.’” To which their professional response is: “We cannot do that. And also, by the way, you might go to jail.”
Most executives change their tune when prison is mentioned. “They then become quite sheepish and humble,” the lawyer explains. “From being all macho, aggressive, ‘I don’t give a shit’, they then turn the other way… ‘Can you help me? What can we do?’ It’s a bit pathetic, actually.”
A partner at a large reputation management legal firm says Waystar Royco should have been better prepared. By the time a crisis hits, the company should have rehearsed this scenario several times and have a crisis response team: usually someone from legal, someone from comms and a very senior executive. “It needs to be a small but well-resourced team who all have clear lines of communication and clear roles in that crisis,” they tell me.
That team should be prepared to go to considerable lengths to establish the truth, they explain. “I’ve been in crises where people have deployed a team to travel out to Turkey or Pakistan or Bangladesh… with less than 24 hours’ notice, to interview people [and] start to gather evidence. In some cases, particularly with digital forensics and that sort of thing, [it’s] so that nothing can be tampered with, and so you’ve got accuracy in terms of what has actually happened.”
There are also usually calls to political and media contacts to “take the temperature”. “Who in government, who’s our regulator that we need to have open access to?” Calls with journalists can be terse, but are necessary. “I would be far more sensitive to what journalists are doing, because in a sense, markets are going to be led by them.”
Often a crisis will be the result of decisions made by those no longer in the boardroom, said Leon Emirali, a crisis communications specialist who has worked with a number of corporate and political clients, including Theresa May’s government. Emirali said May, who was “basically there to clear and clean up the mess of Brexit”, volunteered for a poisoned chalice: something that often happens in business. “Sometimes they look at it and think, ‘this is my shot’,” he said. “Opportunities to become prime minister or CEO don’t come around often.”
The in-house lawyer says a reputational crisis is often seen by insiders as being a CEO’s fault for failing to listen to the people they pay for advice.
“If you listen to us – I know a lot of the time, it means it’s quite boring – but the point of us is to try and save you from yourselves, and save your business from doing something it shouldn’t be doing.”
For the other people around the boardroom table “it can be quite soul-destroying”, they say. “It actually makes me really furious.”