Why ‘no comment’ is never an option when your company’s values are on the line

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Giant companies with tens of thousands of employees aren’t typically known for their speed and agility when it comes to making decisions. Corporate bureaucracy can often bog down a company’s ability react quickly to an impending issue that needs immediate attention. And when that issue that has the potential to erupt into a full-blown crisis, speed is of the utmost importance.

That’s exactly what happened after an employee of Sonoco, the U.S.-based packaging company, was accused of racially profiling a black woman at a private community pool. A man approached the woman and asked for her ID, before calling the police. The incident was filmed by the woman, and the video was uploaded to YouTube and has amassed millions of views. It also quickly drew widespread condemnation and sparked calls for Sonoco to intervene after the man, Adam Bloom, was outed as an employee. Given how news travels at breakneck speed, Sonoco recognized that the actions of a single employee could have major negative repercussions for the company’s brand.

Realizing there was very little time to act to mitigate the damage this could have on its brand and reputation, Sonoco enacted their crisis management plan, which all companies must have in place in order to respond quickly. Had Sonoco not had a plan in place, you can imagine just how long a response might have taken.

Shortly after learning of the incident, Sonoco put out a well-written open letter from its CEO that touched on three key points that all company’s should do if faced with a similar situation:

  • Show decisive action has been taken, such as termination of employment;

  • Draw attention to the company’s values; and

  • Issue an apology on behalf of the company.

It’s of course important to note that even though the incident occurred outside work, the company’s values were at stake -- after all, a refusal to act or acknowledge the incident would have set a vastly different tone than the open letter from the CEO. Sonoco’s response clearly underscores the reality of today’s business world: companies must be ready to be held accountable for their employees’ actions both inside and outside work.

The manner in which Sonoco managed this particular issue is a lesson to firms big and small -- when a company’s values are breached, action must be swift and direct. ABC and Disney make for another example in their decision to cancel Roseanne Barr’s show because of her racist tweets. What not to do? A slow, plodding internal review or a refusal to comment are almost guaranteed to cause further reputational damage. Being open, transparent and willing to put actions behind corporate values is what the public expects, and what all companies must deliver.