What does the Sir Tim Hunt furore tell us about the challenge for communicators?

Whatever your are views on Sir Tim Hunt, a man in his position of responsibility should have realised that appearing to belittle female peers with apparently sexist comments would provoke a reaction. But the sustained industry and media backlash could have, in part, been avoided through better corporate and media handling from the various parties involved. As the news cycle around Sir Tim rumbles on in to another week, with a fresh appeal from fellow academics for his reinstatement in to various posts, what are the lessons here for communicators?

As a communications professional, I've often been asked for my opinion on whether something is offensive or bad taste. This is particularly true in my time at eBay. The eBay site is vast with many of our millions of items reflecting cultural events and trends. Sometimes items and listings are intended to be humorous or satirical. Think of your typical slogan t-shirt or mug. One person's idea of a joke, or tongue-in-cheek tribute, could cause offence to others.

Here are a few lessons I've learnt along the way:

1. Have clear policies on what corporate or community behaviour is acceptable
At eBay, we have a range of publicly available policies about what type of items are acceptable and the right way to list things. I wonder if UCL had as clear policies on what academics can and can't say, or what response to make when a controversial remark is made? The fact that they are now talking about validating their decision with the appropriate governance council, seems a bit like bolting the stable door afterwards.

2. Know your community
In the case of Sir Tim, given his standing in academic circles and the sensitive topic of free speech in universities, it isn't surprising that there has been a backlash to his robust treatment. So knowing and predicting stakeholder reactions to any action on 'offensive' behaviour is vital. At eBay, we have to balance the values of a very broad community. And often that means thinking globally - what might be OK in one country might be much more sensitive to customers elsewhere - and considering the views of wider stakeholders too.

3. Exercise judgement - don't bypass your sense of humour
Some commentators, and Sir Tim himself, have said his comments were not intended to be taken seriously. Not a 'get out of jail free' card when you cause offence but it does raise the question of whether some people, boosted by the quick-fire power of social media, can sometimes react a little too strongly and too quickly.  And if brands cave in to the “twitter shaming” without thorough consideration and without reference to an agreed position, that can itself cause a backlash. The media can just as easily turn on a brand, if it shows itself to be too strict or prissy, when it comes to the kind of stuff it sells or how it behaves, and how it justifies itself.

4. Beware of precedents - the right response isn't always the quickest
We know that reacting quickly and decisively in 'crisis' situations often has benefits. But there are dangers. Firstly the danger of back-tracking. If you make a decision, and public reactions are negative, you need to have considered your red lines for what kind of public pressure might cause you to reverse your decision. Apple vs Taylor Swift is a topical example, and it would be fascinating to know if this reversal or a similar scenario had been planned for if enough artists objected. Secondly, if you react strongly in one scenario, are you confident that you'd make the same decision again? Fine if so, but bear in mind that inconsistency in your business action or communications justification will seldom be viewed positively.

5. Rely on your local experts
In a global organisation, you may have people in charge of some decision-making on public policies or positions, such as lawyers or senior communications execs, that aren't sitting in the local market. And there is no replacement for local expertise. From the practical issues of exactly how offensive a particular slang term is, to the softer side of how local employees might think or feel about a particular issue, and showing the right empathy in the language you use in any media response, it's important to get the view from the market to inform your response.

Written by Clare Moore-Bridger, Head of Corporate Affairs Europe, eBay