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P&O Ferries’ reputation is lost at sea

March, 2022

The scandalous sacking of P&O Ferries’ 800 staff with immediate effect has damaged its reputation locally and nationally. Andrew Metcalf, Managing Director at Kent PR, marketing and public affairs agency Maxim, considers if the company can recover, and who else has been damaged?

From a PR perspective, the last few days have seen wall-to-wall condemnation of P&O’s action, and its inhumane announcement over Zoom of the job losses. With the footage pre-recorded it soon went viral, and was quickly followed by demonstrations at Dover and other UK ports.

Press statements were put out by P&O to try and assuage the condemnation, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Experts were wheeled out to answer the question of whether the action was legal, or morally correct with the ‘new’ workers only being paid £2.60 per hour.

Ministers and local MPs waded into the debate, only to then find themselves being asked about the recent vote against legislation that would have stopped the practice of ‘hire and refire’ – and how they voted. This added further oxygen to the shock and horror of P&O’s decision – and generated more footage, widening the criticism to include the Government. 

The situation was exacerbated when it became clear there was a Brexit angle, with P&O’s workers in France not being sacked as the practice of ‘fire and rehire’ is illegal in the EU.

The news agenda quickly moved on when it became known that P&O had taken £10m of Government furlough support, while at the same time its parent company – $10.8bn turnover DP World – spent $200m on prize money for the DP World Tour golf championship. The Government’s recent awarding of DP World with the deregulating freeport status was then brought into question by the media.

And the story took an embarrassing turn for the Government’s own reputation, when it became public that Ministers had sent letters condemning the decision to a P&O Chairman who had stepped down three months earlier.

The bad news doesn’t stop there, with the company a major carrier of food and goods through the short straits from Calais which will generate further negative headlines. With P&O’s vessels out of operation until the new crew are trained, the media will want answers and Ministers will inevitably be asked what they are doing to protect food and manufacturing supply chains.

Despite having no commercial relationship with P&O Ferries, the other casualty that has been potentially damaged is P&O Cruises. The cruise operator’s PR team quickly put out press statements and took to social media to correct any misconception – and they will have to do that for quite some time.

What could the company’s PR team have done?

It depends how much notice they had of the management’s decision and therefore how much time they had to plan. Given how badly the whole announcement was managed it would suggest there was little PR involvement.

The impact of the decision on the company’s reputation may have been discussed at board level, but it looks like any cautionary communication voice went unheard. As a result, the chances of the PR team being able to manage the situation was very limited, if not impossible.

There was no positive angle to the story, especially when the commercial strength of its Dubai-owned parent company become public, as well as the scale of the Government’s furlough payments P&O received.

The P&O story will continue to run. In this situation the PR team will be preparing for when it’s reignited if or when any of the following events appear on the news agenda:

  • There’s any major traffic congestion at the Port of Dover
  • When the P&O services resume and any related public demonstration
  • The loss of customer confidence and cancellations
  • Any judgment is made over the legality of the decision to sack 800 UK workers
  • The Government announces any move to claw back any funding support 
  • The company u-turns on its decision, but that looks unlikely

Whatever happens, there are long hard days ahead for P&O Ferries’ comms team, as well as those organisations caught up in the story.

As a brand, P&O Ferries will always be associated with a PR and HR disaster – and is unlikely to be restored to its former glory.

If you’d like to know more about our crisis communications services, please get in touch.

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Managing Director

posted in: reputation management,

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