Thursday 16 January 2020 8:40 am

What Carlos Ghosn’s escape teaches us about reputation management

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

Carlos Ghosn’s escape from the Japanese justice system is truly remarkable, not just because of the circumstances themselves – which really are stranger than fiction – but also because of what it tells us about owning the narrative in modern reputation management. Indeed, if there is a playbook on how to forge a favourable narrative from a place of adversity, Carlos Ghosn may well have just written it. This is what he’s done right.

Reframe the story 

When it comes to a court case and legal allegations, it can often be surprisingly hard to identify a binary narrative, especially one that looks neutral in the more arbitrary court of public opinion. Given that the charges against Ghosn are still outstanding, and are echoed by similar accusations in France, it is a clear win that he has been able to make this story an examination of the Japanese justice system, rather than of his own financial dealings (of which the lack of disclosure has seen him pay $1 million in fines). 

To be fair, here he was helped hugely by the heavy-handedness and opaque reasoning which the Japanese prosecutors and police have applied to the case. As he has continually highlighted, Ghosn was held before charges, kept in solitary confinement, aggressively interrogated and denied access to his wife and closest family. All this has served to rest the lens of scrutiny firmly over the prosecutors, while the charges themselves have become circumstantial.

Don’t just be the victim

The victim narrative is overplayed. It works to identify your opponents as perpetrators, but it can soon get tired. Ghosn has been much better off focusing on the injustice of his treatment, rather than the inconvenience. This has perfectly complemented his position as a crusader against predatory courts and undue intrigue, which in turn has emphasised his rank as chair and CEO of some of the world’s biggest companies. As he said at his sensational press conference in Beirut: “I am not here to victimise myself. I am here to shed light on a system that violates the most basic principles of humanity.”

Contextualise

This story hasn’t revolved around one man. Ghosn has been able to underline the fallibility of Japanese business culture, and use his own case as a single pressure point, to question the validity of an economy where political and economic interests can align with such ease to subdue the judiciary. The world is now fully aware that 99.4% of all trials in Japan end in prosecution, and that the corporate structure of Nissan and Renault was perceived with such incongruity that it warranted extrajudicial procedure. Ghosn has been able to dispel any notion that these charges were ever simply about his pay package.

Seize the initiative

What better way to do this than to announce your escape by popping up halfway across the world having fled house arrest and state surveillance via a bullet train, private jet and instrument case? I can only think he had Oscar season in mind…

Carlos Ghosn is clearly no saint, but to execute such a brilliant escape with such audacity will have won him many fans. More than that though, he has written the next chapter to this story, giving it the narrative so natural to the fiction we consume so eagerly. This really is a story of triumph over adversity as we see it go from bad, to worse, to miracle. No wonder he has spent much of the last 12 months in off-the-record discussions with journalists and film producers. This was a sublime move.

Keep your integrity

So, what next? This will be where his legacy is forged. Can he remain the man who escaped injustice, not the man who evaded justice? By all accounts, he wants to face his charges and see them dismissed as he makes counter claims to bring closure to his ordeal and to prove his assertions against his Japanese prosecutors.

Another key target will be securing the release of American Greg Kelly, Ghosn’s former confident who was arrested on the same day and who remains in remand. Having come this far, Ghosn will have to be seen to be doubling down while simultaneously not risking his or Kelly’s freedom. This is the razor’s edge between open honesty, and considered litigation which he must negotiate to achieve his exit strategy.

The key variable: Where could it all go wrong?

Politics. Doubtless, lobbying from allies in the Lebanese executive and elsewhere will have strengthened Ghosn’s case while he was in Japan, but bringing a political slant to the affair is unlikely to achieve the justice he is fighting for. 

He has won a stunning PR coup in getting to Lebanon, but this story is far from over. A Hollywood script editor would have him found innocent of all charges in an international court. I feel Mr Ghosn will have to make do with quiet closure and exit via a non-exec role, all brokered on his behalf via the Franco-Japanese diplomatic hotline. That is still an optimal outcome, given his position just three weeks ago. However, if the allegations are proven and he is called out in court, the consequences could be extremely serious – personally, economically and diplomatically.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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