If you don’t have any clients who wear burqas, still read on!
When it comes to the burqa or other aspects of dress codes, I do not intend to advise the former Foreign Secretary or anyone else. I am trying to help you manage your reputational risk. Similarly, my recent article about the row in the Labour Party (remember them?) over antisemitism was not about politics but about managing this same risk. The current row is certainly affecting the brand image of the Conservative Party as well as that of Boris Johnson. What could affect yours?
Let’s put the burqa row in perspective
People’s views on this subject don’t seem to be based on the issue itself, but on their views on:
Few people will not have opinions already on these two subjects. Some people have noted that those attacking Boris most loudly tend to be remainers in the Tory Party, whilst those who defend him tend to be Brexiters.
My point is that the reactions might have been different had anyone else said what Boris said. I expect Boris was aware of that when he wrote the article about the burqa. He probably wanted to create some controversy, as he likes and needs publicity. Any kind. He probably guesses that the people he is offending are not likely to be too fond of him anyway. Meanwhile, his supporters might include many who either don’t care, or share his views.
What is the lesson for you from the burqa row?
As I said in my article on antisemitism in the Labour Party, context is everything. Some people are always willing to take offence, even on other people’s behalf, especially if the culprit is someone they don’t like. Who would be quick to point to allegedly offensive elements in your advertising, publicity or press releases?
Would a perceived offence affect your reputation among the people you want to do business with? That would probably depend on the nature of your product or service and on the type of image you have cultivated. Any hint of misogyny could be catastrophic if your target demographic was young(ish) women. It might be less so if you were managing a night club.
All right! What about the burqa issue itself?
- I am aware that there is no requirement in the Koran for women to wear any particular items of clothing, so long as they dress modestly. The interpretation of that varies among different schools of Islam and different individuals.
- Boris did not call for a ban, but merely stated that in his personal opinion women in burqas looked ridiculous. Cannot anyone express an opinion about anyone else’s appearance?
- If someone criticised or ridiculed the dress of Christian clergy, from mitres to dog-collars, it would offend a lot of people. However it would not lead to calls for sackings or disciplinary action.
- When I try to look at this objectively, I think Boris’s critics are overreacting. However, as I have said already, context is crucial.
What is the context of the burqa row?
The context is of a rise in hate crime, of immigration being a toxic issue, of the Windrush scandal and of many British Moslems feeling unwelcome. In this context, Boris’s comments were unwise and potentially inflammatory, especially coming from such a high-profile individual.
My advice on managing your reputational risk is to think about the context in which you are operating. Objectivity is not enough.