15 April 2024

ITV, This Morning & Phillip Schofield – a tale of two crisis communications stories

The situation

Phillip Schofield and ITV found itself in a crisis communications situation as a result of a series of revelations about his private life. It is important to stress that Schofield did nothing illegal. He himself said that his actions were “unwise but not illegal”.

Schofield revealed that he had previously had an affair with a younger work colleague whilst still married to his then wife. He announced that he had lied to an investigation that was set up to look into the accusations that he had an affair. He resigned from ITV with immediate effect.

The investigation was announced because the person that he had the affair with was considerably younger than him when they initially met (but nothing happened), when the person was a teenager. ITV faced accusations of facilitating inappropriate behaviour by one of its biggest stars.

One of its other biggest presenters, Holly Willoughby, was also dragged into the story. She was accused of knowing about the affair but saying nothing about it. She has denied this, and Schofield has confirmed that he did not tell anyone else about the affair.

As the media story grew, wider, and well known industry presenters, who had previously worked on the show began accusing ITV and This Morning, of having a toxic working culture. This led to tit-for-tat social media and television statements between several of the parties involved including Dr Ranj Singh, Eamonn Holmes, Dan Wooton and Phillip Schofield.

Former ITV and This Morning presenter - Philip Schofield

The issues

This story quickly became split into two crisis communications campaigns.

Campaign One:

ITV needed to protect its share-price by keeping advertisers and shareholders on-board. It also needed to decide if the time had come to take This Morning off the air and restructure its mid morning schedule. This would be hugely expensive. For ITV it became a classic corporate crisis communications campaign. They deployed the campaign using tried and tested strategies such as announcing an independent external investigation into the goings on, carried out by a senior legal figure.

This a popular tactic used by crisis communications experts for a few reasons. 1. It allows the brand some breathing space. They can publicly refuse to comment and cite that to comment could jeopardise the investigation process. This is of course completely untrue as there is not likely to be any legal ramifications falling out of any investigation.

Any findings of illegal behaviour would undoubtedly be kept out of the public eye, despite their protesting otherwise. This move also allows ITV to be more selective about what they say. An example of this is the This Morning Editor Martin Frizzell being doorstepped by Sky News. He initially said that he could not comment because of the investigation but went on to make a number of points that got his point across anyway. If it was an investigation being carried out under British law he could not have made any comment.

2. The second reason why announcing an investigation is a good crisis communications tactic is because it gives you more time to prepare. Any investigation will take time to be completed and ITV comms people will hope that by the time it has been completed, the media interest in the story will have died down.

It is a well known fact in the comms world that if the story lasts in the news agenda for longer than 2 weeks, you are in serious trouble. The investigations allows the media interest to die down.

Campaign Two:

Phillip Schofield is said to have armed himself with a media lawyer and it is unknown who is advising him from a communications point of view. He embarked on his own campaign to try and clear his name and (I am guessing) facilitate an eventual return to work.

Many crisis communications professionals, myself included, thought that to try and do this so soon after the initial story had broken, was the wrong move. I have not changed my opinion of this.

He went down the usual crisis path of doing a few big ticket interviews (in this case the BBC and The Sun) to try and get his story across and seemingly protect the person who he had the affair with, and Holly Willoughby and ITV.

The reason why I believe this was the wrong move is because the danger is always going to be that not all the facts of the story have come out, and he will find himself having to start his media re-birth all over again. The person he had the affair with will be under incredible pressure to come out and tell their side of the story. They will currently be receiving big offers from the media to do exclusive interviews.

Schofield should have waited 6 to 12 months before trying his comeback (in my opinion). The media interviews he did were not convincing and don’t seem to have “landed” that well with the general public.

The results of the crisis communications campaigns

I will update this post in 3 to 6 months time with the further developments but at the time of writing, these are the results of the two crisis communications campaigns so far.

ITV

Three weeks into the story and so far, the share price has remained fairly constant. The share price was already on a general downward trend before the story broke and whilst this has continued, there was not the massive drop that some analysts feared.

Similarly, advertisers have not pulled out en masse and this will be a huge relief to the company. There will have been concerns that Willoughby could quit, or jump ship (although I feel she has little option but to stay at ITV for now).

For ITV, they have deployed a, so far, very successful crisis communications campaign. Their next hurdle will be the announcement of the findings of the investigation. If the story blows up once more, then we can expect another tried and tested crisis communications tactic to be deployed. This would be to announce a senior level executive is getting the boot because of the findings.

ITV will then hope that this draws a line under the story and they can move on.

ITV CEO Carolyn McCall
ITV CEO Carolyn McCall

Phillip Schofield

In my mind this was never a career ending story for Schofield. He did nothing illegal, although, as he says, it was unwise to say the least. His media interviews, whilst very poorly timed in my opinion, did show how vulnerable he is and hopefully this will slow down the attacks being made upon him by others in the media.

I really can’t seen him returning to work before the Autumn, or maybe not even for the rest of this year. There is already speculation that he is going to move to a talk radio station as his next career step and this makes sense from a “dipping your toe” perspective.

Overall

This was a hugely embarrassing media story for all concerned but it is fully recoverable for all parties, unless more facts emerge that paint both parties in a negative light.

ITV handled this 8/10 and I would say Schofield handled it around a 4/10 purely because he tried to speed the reputation recovery process too early.

Wider reading and analysis

I have been quoted extensively in the UK media about this story and the crisis communications options.

My appearance on GB News (it was 6am, don’t judge my appearance).

The Drum – Should advertisers be worried about how ITV is dealing with the Phillip Schofield crisis

Metro – What could happen to This Morning as ITV is plunged into crisis following Phillip Schofield’s bombshell confession?

Daily Star – Holly Willoughby ‘stuck at ITV but could host new show’ after Phillip Schofield affair

The Sun/Scottish Sun – Lorraine Kelly looked worlds away from ITV co-star Holly Willoughby this morning

Metro – What could happen to This Morning as ITV is plunged into crisis following Phillip Schofield’s bombshell confession?

Entertainment Daily – This Morning needs to make “fast move” to cut our damaged goods amid Holly and Phil fallout claims

Niall Boylan Podcast – ANDY BARR PR EXPERT SAYS PHILLIP SCHOFIELD NEEDS TO STAY AWAY FROM TV FOR AT LEAST A YEAR.

Here is a short video of some of the regional radio interviews that I took part in. I took part in around 50 regional radio interviews on the subject.

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