Roald Dahl and anti-Semitism – should you bury bad news?

Roald Dahl was in the news last week, after it emerged that his family had quietly issued an apology for anti-Semitic comments the author had made during his lifetime.

On an inconspicuous page of his official website, his family and the Roald Dahl Story Company apologised for the “lasting and understandable hurt caused” by “prejudiced remarks” made during interviews in 1983 and 1990. The statement was not publicly announced but became news after being spotted by The Sunday Times.

It’s of course important that his family have chosen to acknowledge and apologise – albeit 30 years too late – for the racism that has long been a cause of pain and distress for the Jewish community and beyond, but was it the right approach to bury it on a website page?

To some extent the nature of how the apology was issued became the story. The Guardian focussed on the fact that the statement was “buried deep” in the official website and a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said the apology “should have come much sooner and been published less obscurely.” Instead of talking about what they said, we are talking about when and how they said it.

Given the continued popularity of the author’s work with children across the globe, the Dahl brand has a moral obligation to address this matter in a way that tallies with the seriousness of the offence. At the same time, the family/company has arguably missed an opportunity to take ownership of this important issue by being more proactive, both in the timing and nature of their apology.

This is a something we often find ourselves bumping up against as PR professionals, particularly in relation to crisis comms: to what degree should an issue be proactively addressed? Many of us in the PR world will have worked with clients who, when faced with managing a difficult news story, opt for a reactive approach (“let’s prepare a statement and hope the story doesn’t get picked up”) rather than communicating in an honest and open way with their ‘publics’.

Understandably, no one wants to fuel their own bad news, but by taking the lead you can play a bigger part in shaping the narrative around a story. Appearances matter, as does the way a message is delivered. This is why companies bring out their CEO at times of crisis – to show leadership and commitment in responding to difficult issues. An insufficient or poorly handled apology (CEO, or not) can make a crisis worse.

Of course, it’s easy to comment from the side lines on these things. When I see stories like this in the news, I often wonder what conversations went on behind closed doors. Did the family consider the merits of, say, a face to face interview – perhaps with one of the key Jewish publications – rather than this more passive approach?

Roald Dahl’s comments were vile and racist, and it’s a no-brainer that an apology was needed. But in approaching it the way they did, the Roald Dahl Story Company have arguably fallen short of the mark. Dahl is a brand after all, and it’s increasingly important for brands to do the right thing, and clearly communicate their ethics and values to consumers and clients, even in relation to historic issues.

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