Tragic associations Article icon


At the end of December, paramedics rushed to John Lewis’s Peter Jones store in London’s Sloane Square after a man appeared to throw himself down a fifth floor escalator.

The previous month, a man died after falling from a third floor escalator at the Debenhams store in Oxford Street, London.

Other recent incidents include the death of a two-year-old girl in September after she was hit by a car in the car park of an Asda supermarket in Wembley, North-West London as her horrified mother looked on.

And last July, a man was jailed after going into a Tesco store in Hemel Hempstead carrying and proceeding to strike the supermarket’s wall with an axe.

All were separate incidents that were in no way linked. Yet they could potentially cause reputational issues for the retailers concerned, in addition to the operational costs of cleaning up after incidents and liaising with police and other emergency services.

So should such retailers and owners of shopping centres take steps to disassociate themselves from such events for fear of being damaged in the fallout?

Or should they quietly ride out such situations in case they encourage others to take similar actions?

A quick snapshot of the media comments of the retailers in the recent incidents demonstrates that in many situations of this type, the latter option is the preferred course of action.

Debenhams simply said in a statement that there were thought to be ‘no suspicious circumstances’.

John Lewis was also sparse with its words, saying that the Peter Jones store had closed early due to a ‘serious customer incident’.

It’s easy to see why such incidences are given so little air time by the retailers that find themselves caught up in them.

Sensitivity prevails

Suicides in particular are highly-emotive tragedies where police, ambulance and fire services and even newspapers restrict what they say publicly out of respect for relatives and the due process of coroner’s inquests.

But suicides, aggressive motoring incidents resulting in loss of life and violent behaviour can still be issues for communicators and protectors of corporate reputations. Nobody would ever suggest that a suicide or fatal hit and run crash in a retail setting would be the fault of the business itself.

Yet, once such associations are made, however undeserved they might be, they can have a habit of sticking. ‘It’s quite a complicated subject,’ says Charles Stewart-Smith, director at communications consultancy Blue Rubicon. ‘You would want to disassociate your company from any such incident but you may not be able to.’

Shopping centre owners might appear to be particularly at risk. Land Securities, for example, operates seven large British shopping centres including sites at Glasgow, Leeds, Cardiff and Bluewater in Kent, which each experience footfall of more than 20 million people a year.

However, corporate communications director Duncan Bonfield says: ‘There are remarkably few incidents, given that we have shopping centres that are essentially city centres. When we do get them, the emergency services tend to deal with the communications as well, so we don’t get to deal with any reputational issues. I can’t think that we have ever had an ongoing reputational hangover in the two years that I have been here.

‘We perhaps get an incident a month but we have 300 million people go through our shopping centres every year and I don’t think there’s ever been any sense of reputational damage.’

Suicide remains a highly sensitive subject, however, and several present or past communication chiefs of major UK property companies will only talk about the issue without being identified.

‘We had somebody throw themselves off the top floor last year,’ recalls one, ‘but when something like that happens, the shopping centre is closed for the rest of the day, the police and emergency services take over and the protocol is that they do all the communications.

‘Then the shopping centre reopens and life tends to go on. We tend not to talk about it for fear of inciting copycat incidents.’

Another former head of corporate communications at a large retail property group says: ‘It’s always a difficult and sensitive area. It’s hard to stop somebody who wants to jump across a bannister to commit suicide in the middle of a crowded shopping mall. There’s always an aftermath for the people who are in the centre as well as the relatives of the person concerned. It’s pretty horrific.’

Indeed, the problem has led to the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC) forming a partnership with the Samaritans to train staff in how to respond operationally.

‘It’s something we take very seriously,’ says Nina Legge, PR manager at Hammerson, the property group whose chief executive David Atkins is president of the BCSC. ‘It’s obviously a very sensitive issue and we’re advised by the Samaritans on how to deal with it, from the language to use to how to deal with the families and other people affected by it. We have a protocol in place.

‘Historically, there have fortunately been very few incidents. It’s something that happens but thankfully it doesn’t happen that often.’

Supporting people

Whether there is potential for reputational harm by association with such events is a harder question to answer.

‘At the time, it’s just about mitigating the impact on people who have been affected and also being vigilant,’ says one retail communicator. ‘Of course it could have a knock-on effect but that isn’t first and foremost in our minds when these things happen.’

Lorna Fraser, The Samaritans’ media adviser, says the BSCS partnership mainly concerns training and safety and prevention work and does not include counselling, though the organisation may in some instances offer post-incident support.

However, she advises against talking publicly about this issue – and even counselled against the publication of this article – due to the risk of encouraging copycat suicide attempts.

‘It’s a very, very risky area,’ she says. ‘You can’t talk about the reputational risk and managing that in shopping centres or the railways without highlighting suicide methods. We try to discourage people from taking that risk.

‘And again our [other] partnership with Network Rail is about trying to prevent suicide and making the railways a safer place, should vulnerable people find themselves there.

‘It’s not about reputational risk at all. We don’t really work in that area.’

Stewart-Smith believes there are three main categories of incidents that require companies whose premises are unwittingly used as venues to make public statements.

The first is when there’s a desire to precisely pinpoint where something has happened in order to get across the message that it was an isolated incident involving no systemic risk.

Stewart-Smith also believes public intervention can be advisable if a retailer or property owner believes they have been specifically targeted by someone carrying out an act on their premises as part of a vendetta or campaign.

Finally, he says a public statement is necessary if the retailer or property owner has in some way been culpable in helping cause an incident through a security lapse or safety failing.

Generally however, Stewart-Smith believes that companies that suffer from incidents taking place on their premises are usually best-advised to say very little.

‘In many cases, incidents are accidents or crimes that have nothing to do with where they happen. There’s no connection. The venue is merely incidental and you don’t want to connect yourself with them unnecessarily,’ he says.

‘For the owner or operator, it’s a police matter that they shouldn’t need to get involved in publicly because they’re not relevant to the investigating authorities.

‘It’s not that it’s someone else’s problem. It’s just that it’s something that’s not associated with you causally and therefore you don’t need to associate yourself with it. If you become too associated with it, it looks like you have had some kind of causal effect, which in most events is not the case.’

As retailers battle for customers against intense competition, both on the high street and in out-of-town supermarkets, this is a risk that they could do well without.

Retail is detail, as the old adage goes. And, with social media ready to swiftly punish any blackening of corporate names, how Britain’s supermarkets, department stores and shopping centres respond to this apparently increasing threat may play a part in marking out the winners and losers.