On 23 April 1991, Gerald Ratner delivered a speech to the Institute of Directors. Almost overnight, he lost his job (along with the £650,000 salary), £500 million was wiped off the valuation of the company, and a billion-pound turnover was slashed.
What did he say? During his speech, he explained the ongoing success of the Ratners Group, despite the economic downturn of the late 80s, with this joke: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.” He went on to say that some of the earrings were “cheaper than a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.”
From his book, The Rise and Fall…and Rise Again, “Despite the fact that I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t do anything illegal…that speech caused me to lose my business, my reputation and my fortune. In 2006 a book was published called History’s Worst Decisions. Alongside Nero burning Rome to the ground, Eve eating the apple, and the choice not to install a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean was that speech…I arrived home to a house that was worth less than I’d paid for it, fired from the only job I’d ever had, with my reputation in tatters. I felt sorry for myself, but I was also incredibly angry. I had worked bloody hard for 30 years, making millions for shareholders and creating thousands of jobs for a company I loved, and I had suddenly had it taken away. Not for doing anything criminal. I hadn’t embezzled. I hadn’t lied. All I had done was say a sherry decanter was crap.”
It has been proven many times (although politicians don’t get it) that clients do not want to hear the negative. They don’t want to hear how bad the opposition product is. They want to hear how good your product is and what benefits you are offering. They don’t want to hear criticism—about the opposition, your company, management, or product. As Gerald Ratner proved, an organisation can be destroyed by one critical remark. As Johnny Mercer sang in 1944, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.