By order of the King: A lesson in reputation from Henry II and eBay

By order of the King: A lesson in reputation from Henry II and eBay

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

Legend has it that King Henry II uttered, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!" and four of his (not so bright) knights took this as a direct instruction, rode to Canterbury Cathedral and butchered the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket at the altar. All because Becket had criticised the King.

Fast forward 850 years...

It is alleged that two members of eBay's executive team sent or forwarded text messages in 2019 suggesting it was time to "take down" a newsletter editor and its publisher, a husband and wife team, and all because they had criticised eBay.

Six former employees of eBay possibly took these messages as direct instructions and all have been arrested. They have been charged with an aggressive cyberstalking campaign targeting the editor and the publisher of a newsletter. "The alleged harassment included sending the couple anonymous, threatening messages, disturbing deliveries – including a box of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath and a bloody pig mask – and conducting covert surveillance of the victims," says a Department of Justice (DOJ) press release issued last month.

The purported three-phase harassment campaign outlined by the DOJ describes a sensational plot worthy of any blockbuster film.

The details of the case are in the press release and will be unfolding in a court room drama in Boston and New York very soon, and may I remind all readers that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

How has eBay responded so far?

Some might question the integrity of a CEO or a company that would ever allow this sort of behaviour to happen, with so many ex-employees possibly involved. It will take a while for eBay’s reputation to recover.

Reputations are lost in a flash of lightning and are glacial to move in a positive direction, but progress can be made. I hope eBay appoints a chief reputation officer or an agency to manage and measure the reputational progress forwards. eBay is wise enough to know how hard it must work to clean up its act, set the record straight and ensure nothing like this ever happens again. What was the company culture that might have fostered this sort of harassment plan and how could it have even entered anyone’s head to do this? And critically, how has eBay’s culture changed?

Quite rightly, eBay had not commented on the DOJ’s investigation, or the indictments, to preserve the integrity of the major government department’s investigation. eBay issued its own press release on the same day, alongside the release from the DOJ. Perfect timing, a clear message of a united front, and meeting such a corporate reputation crisis head on is exactly the advice we would recommend.

Also, on hearing of suspicious action in August 2019, eBay conducted its own internal investigation, with assistance from an independent and external legal counsel. As a result, in September 2019, eBay terminated all involved employees, and eBay's former chief communications officer.

Where was the CEO in all this?

The internal investigation found no evidence that the CEO knew in advance about, or authorised, the actions that were directed at the editor and her husband, the publisher. However, eBay revealed that the CEO did use 'inappropriate communications' and there were apparently a number of other considerations leading to his departure from the company, including this DOJ investigation.

September 2019 seems to have been eBay's metaphorical blood bath.

At Firefly we have handled crises in all forms. In our opinion, eBay took quick and decisive action. It cooperated fully with law enforcement, apologised to all affected individuals publicly and has made it quite clear that it does not tolerate this kind of behaviour. From our experience of handling crises, and from what we have read, eBay has done the right thing so far to protect its reputation as best it can. Rebuilding it will require proof of a change in culture.

As well as communicating clearly via the media, we hope eBay has not only communicated directly to all stakeholders to reassure them of the requirements for high standards of conduct from its employees but also taken appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed, in the same way as Starbucks provided training for 175,000 employees after admissions of racial bias. There is much work to be done behind the scenes.

Being a chief communications officer or CEO in today’s world is a role which requires impeccably high standards and ethical decision making. You need to take responsibility for building and upholding a culture of trust, honesty, and transparency. Never doubt it.

Clearly, being an influential archbishop in 1170 and in any way criticising the King of England was a very dangerous thing indeed. And Becket paid the highest price with his life.

So, what happened to King Henry and the four knights?

Becket was hailed as a martyr and became a Saint.

King Henry was horrified his words were taken so literally. It was publicly known that he took penitence, wore a sackcloth and ashes, and starved himself for three days. It was a shallow attempt to rescue his reputation.

King Henry didn't arrest the four knights – apparently, he advised them to flee to Scotland. After a short while they returned to their lands and life carried on as usual, presumably with the blessing of the King.

King Henry's reputation was as an argumentative, controlling, heartless and ruthless ruler. For all his many faults, in 1166 he introduced new procedures for criminal justice, with 12 people on a jury, trials, judges, sheriffs, writs, prisons and fines. These common law procedures are broadly the basis on which many courts work today, including the US, under rule of law. It will be an experience keenly observed by those six ex-eBay employees.  

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