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Another week, another high-profile news personality down in flames. This time it’s not #MeToo claiming another career; it’s actually a onetime #MeToo accuser herself, broadcaster Megyn Kelly.
While at Fox News, Kelly famously accused Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her early in her career at the network. In January 2017, she left Fox for NBC, where she was given a prime morning slot on the Today Show.
Now her show’s been cancelled at NBC, days after defending the practice of dressing up in blackface on Halloween during an on-air panel segment. Her comments resulted in a social media uproar and were greeted with dismay by her colleagues at Today, several of them African-American.
In her tearful apology the next day, the onetime lawyer said she was unaware of the shameful history of blackface and how it was used for decades to demean, degrade and dehumanize black people.
Is her formal exit from the network, expected this week and just half-way through an eye-popping $69 million contract, political correctness run amok? Did NBC act too harshly given her public apology? Or, as some have suggested, is the network simply using the incident as an excuse to fire Kelly in the face of declining viewership for Today since her arrival?
And, most importantly for us here at Provident and our clients, what lessons can we glean from what’s happened to Kelly? What would we have advised NBC and Kelly?
First and foremost, our message to NBC officials would be to know your audience. What viewers have they lost since Kelly’s hiring, and who do they want to bring back? Would firing Kelly send a powerful message that NBC values their patronage? And what about the customers, or viewers in this case, who might be lost if a company takes the drastic step to fire someone who might be considered by some as a brand ambassador?
A good communications advisory firm can help you answer those pressing questions, and quickly. By gauging public reaction and drilling deep to figure out what your customers care about -- including where they reside ideologically, financially and politically -- a savvy crisis management team can move with speed to assess what needs to be done. We suspect NBC already had internal marketing information that showed them Kelly was unpopular among the growing American demographics they and their advertisers are trying to build upon, like young people of colour.
As for Kelly? Her apology, unfortunately, couldn’t undo her history of making equally inappropriate statements on race over the course of her career at Fox. We suspect she may find herself back at Fox given her ideology seems more at home there, and Ailes has left the building, although Fox has initially suggested they don’t want her back. But for Fox News, it could prove to be a big get, given their viewers would likely sympathize with her plight, view her as a martyr and cheer her return.
But if Kelly wants to rebuild her reputation post-NBC in order to land on her feet at another mainstream broadcaster, our advice would be to dramatically rebuild her image.
A start would be to genuinely educate herself on the sensitive, simmering race issues that are nearly at full boil in the United States right now, and to try to make amends to those she’s offended over the years.
Earlier this summer, there were a number of stories about current and former White House staffers complaining about not being able to date in DC thanks to their boss, President Donald Trump.
Many vented their frustration, saying they’re on a social blacklist because of their boss and his controversial (to put it extremely mildly) public profile. While the vast majority of these individuals probably never met Trump himself, or even supported all his policies, their association with such a divisive person negatively impacted their reputation.
Not being able to land a date is one thing. But what happens when staying on with your employer means tarnishing your professional reputation, perhaps permanently?
There are instances when public figures cross a line that is just too far, and require immediate action. Wanda Sykes, who was a consulting producer on hit show Roseanne, quit before ABC Entertainment had a chance to publicly comment on the racially-charged tweets sent by Roseanne Barr, which ultimately caused the sitcom to get cancelled.
The same can be said for top staffers in former Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown’s office. When news broke of allegations of sexual misconduct against him, many of his closest advisors took to Twitter announcing their immediate resignation before Brown even held his press conference. They full well knew that in the court of public opinion, especially in politics, they needed to distance themselves from Brown’s now tarnished reputation.
Since quitting one’s job on a whim is not a choice many can afford, there are options for employees who find themselves being tarred with the same brush as the C-suite, or even the organization’s brand.
We spoke with Evangeline Berube at Robert Half Management Resources, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm, to gather some insights on what to do when your organization’s negative brand threatens your own.
Provident: At what point does a company's or a senior executive’s negative reputation begin to affect that of their employees?
Evangeline Berube: That really is dependent on the individual ideals of an employee. On one hand, they may not consider their leader’s reputation as having much of an influence on their day-to-day; on the other hand, a professional may feel their leaders’ reputations are representative of the work they do, and a reflect on their own.
More often than not, people want to support and work for companies that serve a larger purpose and help their communities. They want leaders who demonstrate a commitment to something bigger than themselves and may get disenchanted or disengaged with their own work when they feel that their manager doesn’t live up to their own vision of the organization. They may not feel proud of the work they do and start looking for an organization that better represents their professional and personal principles.
Successful businesses make goodwill, philanthropy and engaging corporate involvement part of their culture. This includes giving employees time and resources to dedicate to charitable and community activities and aligning leadership goals with individual goals.
P: Do employees have any options to help protect their personal reputation other than quitting?
EB: Everyone influences culture, whether they proactively try to or not. The best way for employees to protect their reputation is by entrenching a positive reputation for themselves among colleagues and within their network.
Lead by example, and embody the type of corporate culture you seek for your company. For instance, you can foster a culture of recognition by acknowledging colleagues’ work and celebrating their successes. Additionally, you can:
Talk to your manager about the culture you think is right for the company. If you’re looking for changes, don’t gripe. Talk about how the company can benefit and ways you can help.
Thank colleagues for their help.
Build rapport with coworkers, and take an interest in their well-being and that of the people network.
Be a resource for your colleagues and peers, including by offering to help when possible.
P: Does working for a company with a bad reputation impact future employment opportunities?
EB: In our experience, it has more of an impact on the business itself rather than the employees who work for them. It makes it more difficult to recruit top talent, and keep top talent.
When employees or job seekers feel that their leaders aren’t living up to the ideals of the business, or misrepresenting the values of their teams, they run the risk of their workers becoming disengaged, unmotivated, resentful and ultimately ready to leave.
When looking for future employment, how workers handle the way they left a company or leader they no longer related to may actually say a lot about them to future employers. Leaving on a positive note while maintaining their individual ideals, shows a strength of character and a commitment to professionalism.
P: Should employees speak out publicly against their employer to distance themselves?
EB: Sometimes silence speaks volumes. Ultimately, leading by example and living the ideals you want your leadership to embody says more about what you represent as an individual and as a professional.
As the famous saying from Warren Buffett goes “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” At Provident, we couldn’t agree more and have seen first hand just how fast things can change. That why it’s important to have a plan in place to not only respond to potential crisis, but also recover and rebuild any reputational damage sustained. We’d also like to thank Evangeline for taking the time to share her insights on this issue, and we hope you found it as beneficial as we did.
It seems like we hear almost daily about a new, major data breach, compromising hundreds of thousands of individuals’ private information and leaving billions of dollars of damage in its wake. Just this morning, Air Canada announced their mobile app was breached, saying 20,000 customers may have had their personal information "improperly accessed", forcing the airline to lock-down all 1.7 million accounts until passwords are changed. Wired magazine recently published this story about how one of the world’s largest shipping companies was held hostage in such an attack, sending IT teams across A.P. Møller-Maersk panicking, and ultimately causing nearly a fifth of the world’s shipping capacity to come to a complete halt.
The virus, known as NotPetya, turned out to be a WMD of malware, and is the largest attack of its kind the internet has ever seen.
Maersk wasn’t the only one to suffer either. The US government estimates that nearly $10 billion in damage was done across the globe, likely at the hands of Russian hackers who unleashed NotPetya on companies big and small. Here are the sobering figures of how much damage some of these companies suffered:
Merck: $870 million
FedEx: $400 million
Maersk: $300 million
Given the extreme severity and steady frequency of attacks like NotPetya, WannaCry and others, it’s safe to say that data breaches are no longer a question of if, but when, for Canadian organizations. This threat is constantly growing and evolving, and organizations must have a plan in place that allows for rapid response.
No matter how robust your cybersecurity protocols are, there is almost no time to play catch up when a breach occurs. Just imagine this scene detailed in Wired at the headquarters of Maersk:
All across Maersk headquarters, the full scale of the crisis was starting to become clear. Within half an hour, Maersk employees were running down hallways, yelling to their colleagues to turn off computers or disconnect them from Maersk’s network before the malicious software could infect them, as it dawned on them that every minute could mean dozens or hundreds more corrupted PCs. Tech workers ran into conference rooms and unplugged machines in the middle of meetings.
While Provident is not a cyber security company, we always stress to our clients that investing in a crisis response communications plan is just as important as having a security response plan in place with your IT department. The logic is simple: a massive attack impacts the thousands if not millions of your organization’s customers. Putting out the fire is paramount, but communicating with those impacted is just as important. What you do in response matters just as much as what you say and how you say it.
With that in mind, we have designed data breach scenario training and tailored response plans to help you prepare in the event of a cyber attack or data breach, protecting your brand and reputation, while ensuring you keep the confidence and trust of the public. We must recognize we live in a world where the public expects a swift response, and reputational damage will only get worse if there is any delay.
If you think you’re immune, think again.
According to an Ipsos poll, half of Canadian C-suite executives and nearly a quarter of entrepreneurs said the cybersecurity of their business was breached in 2016. We don’t even have to look that far back to note that over 600,000 Canadians had their personal profiles shared with Cambridge Analytica through Facebook, 19,000 had their personal information compromised through Equifax, and nearly a million had their names, emails and phone numbers exposed when Uber was hit.
Given how common these cyber attacks are occuring, the government of Canada has a new law coming into effect on November 1, 2018 that mandates all companies to notify individuals if their data was comprised. Failure to do so can result up to a $100,000 fine for each offence.
Like other forms of crisis, cyber attacks can completely disrupt an organization's ability to function, impact both internal and external relationships, and if not handled properly, be extremely costly to fix. That is why companies must adapt and better prepare for responding to potential breaches before disaster strikes -- not during, or after.
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.
With just a few keystrokes, controversial sitcom superstar Roseanne Barr unwittingly put the wheels in motion that would cost everyone involved with her show their jobs, and the show’s network, ABC, millions of dollars. As in many instances before this, what happened is a cautionary tale about the power of social media. However, it also provides a great case study on how a top brand moved - boldly, if perhaps imperfectly - to contain a crisis and uphold its values.
Before we dive into the rapidly developing events of Tuesday morning, we need to take a step back and understand how Roseanne was a TV show of strategic importance. For starters, its lead actor who the show is named after is a well known Trump supporter, an oddity in liberal Hollywood. Recognizing her appeal with the American heartland, ABC took a gamble on reviving the show that would put her politics on full blast. Turns out that gamble paid off, and Roseanne became a smash hit. Many Americans who subscribe to the ‘Make America Great Again’ motto believe the entertainment industry doesn’t value them. This show offered them inclusion, so much so that their ratings obsessed President even tweeted his support for his newfound Hollywood surrogate in Ms. Barr.
While politics was a major driving force in the show’s appeal, it’s not what caused it’s sudden cancellation as many of Roseanne’s supporters will try to argue. This is not some liberal, mainstream media conspiracy. More plainly, it was about racism. Ms. Barr’s bizzare, racist tweets were the point of no return for the TV network. Yes, ABC had been criticized in the past for holding its nose at her tweets, but this latest digital outburst from Ms. Barr went much too far, and they had to act fast.
In a time of crisis, time is always of the essence. The public, stakeholders and internal audiences expect a response, and they expect it immediately, with force. Case and point: As Twitter began to erupt with backlash against Ms. Barr’s tweets, there was radio silence from the ABC brass. We are talking hours here, not days, and it goes to show how fast companies are now expected to respond.
The network knew what was at stake if it didn't act fast. We’ve seen how quick the public can mobilize against networks, which is often followed by advertisers pulling out and boycotts of shows that ultimately hurt a network’s bottom line. Recognizing this, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey issued a brief statement, saying “Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” By drawing attention to its corporate values, ABC made it clear that racism has no place its its value structure, and that no matter how profitable a show is, doing the right thing is always the right choice.
Now, ABC could have issued a statement condemning Ms. Barr’s comments. Then it could have waited and eventually caved to pressure that inevitably would follow to either fire Ms. Barr or take the show off the air. It didn’t, and instead, it acted in bold, unequivocal fashion that put their values before profits -- and, perhaps, ahead of the show’s employees.
Some have pointed out that many actors, crew, writers, production staff and others on the show will lose their jobs alongside Ms. Barr as a result of her actions. It’s a vaid critique of what ABC did, and some will call it heavy handed. While we can’t be sure, we would guess that ABC and Disney did this arithmetic, and will likely offer financial restitution to those impacted in this relatively rare instance. There was a reputational calculus here, as well - ABC believed that the entirety of the blame for the job losses would also fall on Ms. Barr. And it appears they were right.
In a world where news travels at breakneck speed, corporations must be ready to respond accordingly. The failure to act and say nothing almost invariably causes more harm than good, and there is no excuse for not being prepared.