Carlos Ghosn captured the world’s attention by being spirited out of Japan in a private jet concealed in a box often used for audio equipment with the help of a security detail led by a former Green Beret. He evaded two trials on charges of financial misconduct. Now he wants to salvage his shattered reputation.
The former head of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA appeared as brash as ever at a 2 ½-hour press conference in Beirut last Wednesday. He railed against Japan’s justice system and accused prosecutors and Nissan officials of fomenting a plot to overthrow him, going so far as to compare the shock of his arrest to the Pearl Harbour attack.
The journey back to respectability is an uncertain one. Here’s what the pros of the public relations world think Ghosn should do.
(Comments have been edited for brevity.)
Larry Kamer, a crisis management expert at Kamer Consulting Group in Napa, California:
“You’d think a guy who has the means and the resources and the imagination to get himself smuggled out of a country in a box would have the brains to listen to some good reputation management and communication people. The sense I got from that press conference was really just him airing his grievances.
“My advice would be to do something about the Japanese criminal justice system that you complain so loudly about. Not everyone is fortunate enough to escape prison, but if he’s serious about it — and it’s not just an excuse — he’s got to make good on it. Partner with an organisation, put up money, come to the aid of other prisoners. He can make something good come from this. That’s the biggest part of restoring his reputation.”
Trudi Harris Dubon, founder of BeKnown, a London-based boutique PR consultant:
“Ghosn needs to focus on being as factual and dispassionate as possible when communicating about his recent experience. We tend to listen more keenly to a cool head and reward them with our consideration. It was Ghosn’s lack of restraint that led him to make the cringe-worthy ‘Pearl Harbour’ comment.
“A spot of humility also wouldn’t go amiss. Humbleness has a tendency to disarm detractors and deploying it can often help turn a disaster into an opportunity.”
Jonathan Hemus, managing director of crisis management group Insignia, based near Birmingham, England:
“In a crisis, your strategic intent — being clear about what success looks like — should shape every subsequent decision and action. It appears that Carlos Ghosn’s strategic intent is to live the rest of his life as a free man and this single goal is driving his words and actions.
“In a crisis, there are no obviously right or wrong decisions. Instead you must consider then select the least bad option in a timely manner. Guided by his strategic intent, that’s exactly what Carlos Ghosn has done. His escape from Japan carried a high degree of risk and a significant downside, but it was better than the alternative of doing nothing.
“By calling a press conference, he grabbed the upper hand by communicating his version of events, thereby setting the agenda and leaving Japanese officials to react to his narrative. Ghosn will face further challenges over the coming months and years as he seeks to clear his name, but his actions and words so far suggest that if anyone can pull it off, he can. He is delivering a masterclass in crisis management.”
Rory Godson, the CEO of Powerscourt, a financial PR firm specialising in crisis management:
“There is a way out but it needs determination, discipline and nerve. First, stop pre-litigating or re-litigating the facts of your case. People find it hard to be sympathetic to fabulously wealthy bosses complaining that other powerful people are conspiring against them. Comparing yourself to the defenders at Pearl Harbour is crass and offensive to Japanese and Americans.
“Instead, keep it really simple. Make the law the issue, not the facts of the indictment. Say the Japanese legal system makes it impossible to get a fair trial. Keep repeating it. Put the Japanese legal system on trial – it will make the Japanese less keen to make noise. Stop doing interviews and press conferences. The Beirut event was a mess. There isn’t a magic interview that gets you clear — ask Prince Andrew.”
Mark Worthington, co-founder and managing director of Klareco Communications in Singapore:
“If you’re embroiled in international legal issues and essentially are a fugitive, the odds are stacked against you. You should be thinking about self-preservation first and reputational rehabilitation second.
“In terms of crisis management, the most effective way of doing it isn’t going out there railing at authority. It’s about quietly having the right conversations to ensure the right context is being understood by the key people reporting on the issue. And I’m not sure that’s a fit with his personality or the infrastructure he has at his disposal.”
Richard Attias, founder of Richard Attias & Associates:
“The Ghosn brand is damaged. To restore it, the solution would be for him to ask for a fair trial in front of an impartial and objective court. In this way, he will not avoid justice and his rights will be respected.”
Here’s what Anne Meaux, head of Image 7, the Paris-based PR agency now working with Ghosn, said about his strategy:
“This is a man who was deprived of a voice for 14 months. He had a need to express himself and he was able to tell his truth, live, on CNN, MTV, Lebanese TV and so many more.
“The public opinion has moved considerably. In France, he’s Largo Winch on social media! There, his image went from a rather wealthy boss to a courageous hero.
“He explained a lot about the allegations during his press conference, and we have positive returns and see a change of perceptions. We have echos all over the world. He isn’t seen as sleazy but as somebody who was unfairly put in jail. Somebody who refused to sign off on the accusations and who is strong, who is worthy of admiration.
“People realise it was unfair and he didn’t deserve to be jailed — even if they still have questions over the allegations. Now of course we will continue to explain the allegations, and we still have some work ahead of us.
Jason Stein, a director of Finsbury, formerly worked as an adviser to Prince Andrew but departed ahead of an ill-fated appearance on BBC’s Newsnight:
“Ghosn’s prospects for rehabilitation seem limited, and at this stage damage limitation is his best way forward. Nonetheless, if he continues to avoid trial, then he has just two very small shots at a partial rehabilitation in the eyes of the world.
“First, he or his team of lawyers produce credible evidence of wrongdoing by the Japanese that conclusively exonerates him. Failing that, Ghosn could choose to use his vast wealth to get to grips with some of the challenging societal issues in the new neighbourhood he calls home.
“Unlike Japan, which has an older population, nearly one in four of Lebanon’s population is aged 0-14. By investing heavily in upgrading education, Ghosn can at least use his resources to try and reinvent himself at home as a philanthropist investing in the country and good causes.”
Emma Kane, CEO of Newgate Communications in London:
“Ghosn should accept that his reputation as a global industrial stalwart has changed. For some former business leaders, who may already have their legacies mapped out in their minds, that can be difficult, but it’s essential for the long-term.
“Ghosn should look ahead, take time to reflect and start setting up a platform to re-establish as an industrial thought-leader and bring his multi-cultural, multi-discipline management philosophy to the world’s boardrooms. Timing, though, is everything.”
Takashi Inoue, CEO of Inoue Public Relations in Tokyo:
“It was appropriate for Ghosn to criticise the Japanese prosecution system, from the standpoint of a foreigner. I have no objection to this because this is the key reason why he left Japan. But he still needs to answer the allegations.
“I advise him to be as objective as possible by providing facts and be less emotional. It may be hard to salvage his reputation in Japan — they are closely linked to government offices and to prosecutors.”
Davia Temin, founder of crisis consultancy Temin and Co. in New York:
“The world does love an anti-hero. The world does love someone who bucks rules and regulations — if they’re a romantic figure. He has made himself into quite a romantic figure. As tempting as is it to tell his story, more and more, the risk now isn’t just that he will sour public support, but that he will do something to make himself a further target.
“He’s one man who is basically fighting a sovereign nation, and their judicial system, their ways of doing business, their way of life. That’s a heavy burden to have taken on. He’s done what he felt he needed to do. I would imagine he’s been in reaction mode up to now — it’s either fight or flight, and he’s done both.
“He’s not just re-establishing his reputation, he’s re-establishing his life. It’s really life first, then reputation. Now that he’s not under house arrest, it’s probably better to do some deep contemplation and maybe go from the spy novel to the philosophical novel.”
Mark Flanagan, CEO of Portland Communications and former head of strategic communications at 10 Downing Street:
“It is possible for Ghosn to elicit sympathy but I don’t believe he can completely rebuild his reputation. By continuing to highlight the harshness of the Japanese judicial system he could turn attention away from the allegations surrounding himself and onto the risks for westerners and western companies doing business in Japan.
“However, the allegations themselves are very serious and the colour surrounding Ghosn’s behaviour, such as the Versailles party, is so deeply unhelpful that it is inconceivable that he could return to anything like his previous status in the corporate world. Running away doesn’t help either, in terms of his reputation.
“He will forever be more famous for escaping Japan in a box than for running a global motor manufacturing company.”
David Rigg, founder of Project Associates, who represented Martin Sorrell after he quit as WPP CEO in 2018:
“I think it’s beyond repair, frankly, and his best bet is to write a book, sell the television rights and have a happy life in Lebanon.”