How a lack of diversity can fuel a reputational crisis

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Our recent Crisis and Consequences study revealed some startling insights into how Canadian businesses prepare -- or fail to prepare -- to handle and recover from reputational crises. (Download the full report by subscribing to our Provident View newsletter).

But perhaps the most disturbing finding regarded the lack of diversity on crisis communications teams. Respondents in crisis management positions told us that their teams lack diversity when it comes to race, gender, gender identification and sexuality. Only 32 per cent said their teams are somewhat diverse, while 44 per cent reported their teams are not diverse at all.

The dangers of a lack of diversity were underscored recently when Twitter’s co-founder said the company’s homogenous workforce played a role in how slowly it moved to deal with the abuse levelled at some of its users.

Almost anyone who spends time on Twitter, and dares to wade into any contentious debates, knows how ugly and traumatizing the social media platform can be. Women and minorities in particular often face a barrage of abuse about everything from their intellect to their physical appearance from anonymous online trolls. Racist and sexist slurs aren’t unusual, even though the social media giant has been taking strides over the past couple of years to shut down abusive and fake accounts.

But Ev Williams, who founded the company with three others in 2006 and is now the CEO of Medium, said greater team diversity could have solved Twitter’s abuse problems before they even started.

A lack of gender and racial diversity at Twitter caused him to underestimate the scale and scope of the problem during his time as CEO from 2008 to 2010, he said in a series of tweets.

“Had I been more aware of how people not like me were being treated and/or had I had a more diverse leadership team or board, we may have made it a priority sooner,” he wrote.

Important lessons

There are critical lessons for us all in Williams’ mea culpa. As our Wojtek Dabrowski noted in a recent interview with Strategy magazine, tone-deaf or tepid responses to a crisis, or misguided advertising campaigns, can be the result of “echo-chamber reinforcement.”

“For smaller companies, simply ensuring that all the voices in the room don’t sound the same, aren’t giving identical advice and are surfacing new and compelling questions, concerns and perspectives in a crisis would be a significant step forward,” he added.

Simply put, without diversity, a company’s response to a crisis can be woefully inadequate, and can damage the business’ brand with everyone from investors and employees to the public at large.

Facebook has certainly learned this lesson the hard way. Its diversity efforts have made little progress over the past five years and, amid a steady series of privacy violations in which it has seemed maddeningly unconcerned about its users’ outrage, it is now having trouble attracting new talent.

A crisis is not a matter of if but when, so companies must be adequately prepared to handle the potential blows to their reputations. And if your communications teams have next to nothing in common with your customers or clients, you can bet your company is going to find itself in hot water sooner rather than later.