Modern Marketing Brand

‘P&O Ferries scandal is the greatest example of cowardly leadership I’ve ever seen’

By Emma Harris |

March 22, 2022 | 7 min read

Emma Harris spent 10 years at Eurostar where she led the brand through multiple PR challenges. Now chief executive of Glow London, she reflects on the failings of P&O Ferries this week.

P&O Ferries was once the poster child for nostalgic British seafaring. Now its reputation isn’t just sinking, it’s capsizing after plunging 800 of its employees into redundancy in the space of a few hours.

My initial reaction to the news? ‘WTAF?’

The last two years have been tough on the travel sector, there is no doubt, but the actions and responses from the brand’s leadership have been shocking. Of course, it is horrendous for any business to recognize that it is no longer viable and my heart goes out to that team who had to accept that reality. But I can’t help but wonder, was there anyone in that boardroom really thinking about their people? Seriously?

P&O Ferries

P&O’s PR disaster could have been avoided with a little thought

Not only did the P&O Ferries board miss so many levels of legislation, but they have also missed the boat on acting with any sense of humanity.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said that “this is the action of thugs,” and it’s hard to argue with that perspective. They’re also delusional to think that they could get away with it. If there is a positive to take from the situation it’s that through the power of social media there is nowhere for the brand to hide, and this unacceptable way to treat people is being called out by people across the world.

Change management isn’t plain sailing, but it’s essential

The funny thing is that this could have ended so differently if they had spent a little more time understanding the importance of change management – especially at this point in the pandemic. Brands have spent the last 24 months going through constant shifts.

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I know how difficult it can be to get change right. Back in 2007, as marketing director for Eurostar, I led the brand’s move from Waterloo to St Pancras, which was no mean feat.

It may come as no surprise that it’s not easy to take the hearts and minds of customers and employees across London overnight. In fact, we were met with a lot of resistance to the move when it was first announced, and we delivered a diligently-planned 18-month engagement plan to make sure we took everyone on the journey with us. Of course, the leadership team at P&O wouldn’t have had the luxury of time in this way, but a £100m hole in their P&L wouldn’t have appeared overnight, and there must have been a way to deliver this bad news without the thuggery that was involved here.

Change management requires a much gentler approach because it is a complex process. We all know that change is an emotional journey consisting of inevitable stages. These stages might happen sequentially, simultaneously, or they may even occur in a random order, but they will happen.

It starts with denial – “I can’t believe this is happening” – as people get their heads around the reality, and often transfers into anger as the disbelief morphs into outward frustration. At some point, emotions will shift again as the anger turns into bargaining – “Well, it might be OK as long as...” – before finally easing into acceptance that the change is happening.

To move at such a rapid speed, and give these poor people no time to think about the psychological trauma this will cause, is sickening and scarring. It’s as if we’ve reverted back to the behavior of the 1980s and the age of industrial villains, particularly as news has now surfaced that the employees have been put under a gagging order at risk of losing their payouts. These are people with mortgages and mouths to feed who are already facing growing economic pressures. P&O has failed these people, failed its customers and failed its society.

A brand sunk in a day

But its failures don’t stop there; impressively, P&O has effectively destroyed its brand equity in less than 24 hours. What was arguably a British institution that millions of us held affection for across the country has now been lost. Whether there is any way that the brand could have financially recovered is irrelevant, as I can’t imagine many of us would consider spending a penny with the brand in the future. The most valuable customer currency has been spent; trust.

Real, impactful and meaningful brands can’t survive without it. Trust builds loyalty and loyalty drives growth. But to keep trust alive, communication is essential, and the way customers were treated was also unforgivable. To maintain trust during a crisis, the least a brand can do is demonstrate an understanding for their customers and employees, to be seen to actually care about what happens, and empathetically share information with them to educate them and help them understand. Yet when it came to communication P&O failed on every level.

We learned this the hard way when our trains failed in the snow in 2009, so I know only too well it’s not always easy to get it right, especially when there are operational failures you couldn’t see coming. But P&O clearly knew this was on the horizon, and to deliver this catastrophic news internally through a shoddy pre-recorded video has to be the greatest example of cowardly leadership I’ve ever seen.

My heart also goes out to the team at P&O Cruises. Despite millions of pounds of marketing, people still think Eurostar (the passenger service) and Eurotunnel (the channel tunnel operator) are the same brands, so I can only assume this crisis will destroy their brand too through no fault of their own.

Not one other brand has treated its people like this through the hardship. If there is a lesson that any brand facing a crisis can take from this, it’s that the way you treat people is central to a brand’s power; without them on board, you’ll sink faster than you can say ‘Bon Voyage.’

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