Five Lessons Learned From Alton Towers' Boss Nick Varney

Humanity and humility protect corporate reputation

Merlin Entertainments, owners and operators of Alton Towers, have been fined £5-million for the health and safety failings which led to serious injuries aboard the Smiler ride 16 months ago. Nothing can change the mistakes that were made, nor their consequences on the day (including two young women losing limbs).

However, Merlin Entertainment’s chief executive Nick Varney has emerged as a shining example of how to limit the reputational damage such a high-profile event, (and its legal outcomes), can inflict on organisations. Surely anyone who saw him making his reaction statement on the steps of the court, will have softened their negative feelings about his organisation.

It’s true that Nick Varney ‘followed the script,’ saying all the things that he might be advised to say by any professional communicator. But that’s not what made this statement so powerful.

Humility

What made it so effective was the man’s evident humanity and humility – qualities that also shone out during his many interviews in the immediate aftermath of the incident. These are qualities we so seldom see or hear from chief executives. They are the qualities people hope for, but don’t expect.

They are qualities that are hard to fake, so we might add authenticity too. Indeed, in my admittedly small-scale straw poll of people’s feelings about Nick Varney after his latest TV appearance, these are three words that came up consistently – humanity, humility, authenticity.

NO scripted statement

Key to this, was how Varney didn't read from a prepared statement. Rehearsed he may have been - but he maintained eye contact with the assembled media throughout. 

There are other lessons, in terms of reputation:

Sorry

- From the beginning, Merlin accepted responsibility and said sorry. It will not always be appropriate to admit liability (as Merlin did) but ‘sorry’ is still the most powerful word.

Outward Focus

- Their focus throughout was on the victims and their families. An apparent outward focus, rather than a corporate one, is always best. Merlin have pledged to support the injured and their families ‘in every way possible’ now and into the future. They even paid for the families’ injury lawyers – is that a first?

Visibility

- The chief executive sought every opportunity to provide a human face for the organisation in front of TV cameras and radio microphones.

So, a perfect picture then? Well, no. There are still those calling for Nick Varney’s resignation, and that of his chairman, Sir John Sunderland. This was ultimately a case of management failure, and the fine represents only around 2% of Merlin’s profits. While Sunderland stayed away from the cameras, the case for his resignation is stronger because he’s chaired the firm’s health, safety and security committee since 2010.

There’s a distance to go yet for Merlin Entertainments, Alton Towers and boss Nick Varney. They’re now in the spotlight, and they may have to make sacrifices, as well as proving they really have learned a lesson. Will Mr Varney continue in his £1-million role and take a bonus? Even if he deserves it from a hard-headed business perspective, I hope he will spot how that might be seen and decline it. I hope he’ll remember that perception is reality when it comes to corporate reputation.

By Magnus Carter, FCIPR, Mentor Reputation Management Consultant

Article Author: Magnus Carter, FCIPR

Magnus is one of our crisis communications specialists, handling all aspects of crisis training, planning and exercise management. As Mentor's founding consultant, he has an international reputation for media and crisis communications consultancy. Magnus started his career as a newspaper journalist, later spending 25 years in news and current affairs broadcasting, working with the BBC and commercial companies in both radio and television. He is an associate consultant of Bristol Business School at the University of West of England, where he was a senior lecturer in postgraduate journalism before founding Mentor Consultancy in 1998. Magnus has worked with many corporate and public sector clients to ensure that media encounters become a positive opportunity, even in times of crisis. He is a Fellow of and trainer for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Magnus is author of Handling the Media! and several published articles on reputation management.