University College London kills it’s own good reputation

What on earth is going on at University College London (UCL)? On the evidence of a recent major story in the London Evening Standard, its president Professor Malcolm Grant seems to be having a Marie Antoinette moment.

For some time now UCL seems to have quietly ignored growing resentment over its policy of paying cleaners minimum wages, instead of the couple of pounds more per hour that campaigners have set as the lowest ‘living wage’ anyone can survive on in London. So when the Standard decided to look into things, no doubt helped along by the aforementioned campaigners, what did he do?

First, Grant repeatedly declined an interview and instead hid behind a flaccid sounding statement. Then, when the Standard’s David Cohen finally cornered him at a UCL event, he put up what can only be described as a ‘let them eat cake’ response.

UCL has a very good reputation around the world but with this kind of publicity, you’ve got to wonder for how much longer? The Standard is already doing its bit to keep the issue alive, publishing a follow up story about a senior staff ‘backlash’.

The reputation lessons here are pretty clear:

1. Ignoring your critics won’t make them go away

2. Never decline an interview without very good cause. An inconvenient truth does not constitute ‘good cause’

3. When preparing to defend yourself, gather all of the facts that might be used against you and ask a trusted, sensible outsider to play the ‘devil’s advocate’ role

4. Review your position against what this person tells you – does it now pass the ‘common sense’ test?

5. If it doesn’t change your position quickly, apologise and put things right fast

What’s also interesting here is that, as you might expect, UCL has a team of communications people who will no doubt be coming under some pressure right now. Were they caught out unprepared for this story breaking or has their advice been flatly ignored by their boss? UCL’s head of media relations is Dominique Fourniol. That sounds like it might be a French name which, when you think about it, seems strangely appropriate given the opening comments in this post.

Postscript: UCL eventually caved in to public pressure and agreed to pay all cleaners and interns the London Living Wage.

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