If one of London’s esteemed public relations agencies was involved in the briefing of P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite before his appearance in front of a parliamentary committee yesterday, it would perhaps be wise for said firm not to put it in their next pitch document. In the annals of disastrous select committee hearings, this was right up there: a slow-motion ferry crash televised across most major networks.
It’s no surprise that Hebblethwaite reported that bookings had taken a hit in the aftermath of the very public, horrendously handled redundancies of 800 workers last week. The reputational hit that Hebblethwaite described yesterday will only get worse.
There is no question that P&O felt the need to make significant changes to its operating model. There is nothing wrong with that; it is the nature of business, and as a firm that deals in leisure travel and freight the pandemic was a perfect storm the like of which is rarely seen on the usually placid waters of the English channel. But by God did it handle its business poorly.
One wonders about the stewardship of DP World. Hebblethwaite, surely, understands the outsized role that P&O plays in the British imagination: the company synonymous with everything from day trips to Le Touquet and the democratisation of foreign travel to the none-so-British booze cruise. Did the Dubai owners not understand the backlash they would meet?
There seems little way out now for the firm other than to take its political, public and (possibly) legal punishment, hope to survive it, and pray that its new operating model of barely-paid staff keeps it afloat. But there will be precious little sympathy or thanks for those at the top who have run their own brand, and that of business as a whole, into very choppy seas indeed.