When brands plan for an unforeseen PR disaster, they typically prepare a list of potential scenarios that could impact their business – anything from a data breach to a natural disaster – along with standby statements so that they can respond with speed, if necessary.
Often, these plans contemplate how the brand would respond if its CEO or another senior executive officer was accused of sexual harassment or got into a car accident while drunk. These things happen, so preparation is important.
However, many companies still leave themselves vulnerable to serious reputation risk by failing to consider a massive and unpredictable blind spot: their rank-and-file employees, behaving badly outside of work hours.
Before Facebook and Twitter gave the average person the ability to reach almost any brand, companies could at least claim that an employee’s inappropriate or offensive behaviour on their own time was exactly that: their own, outside the company’s control.
Now, with the public just a few keystrokes away from expressing outrage publicly and in real time, the game has changed. Brands have to be prepared to act quickly and decisively when the actions of a single worker threaten their very valuable brands.
Companies are starting to recognize this reality.
Hydro One fired an employee in 2015 after he shouted an obscenity at a TV reporter during a live report at a Toronto FC game. The incident garnered immediate and widespread outrage on social media, and support for the TV reporter, which included a comment about sexual harassment from then-Premier Kathleen Wynne. (Hydro One eventually re-hired the employee, after an arbitrator found he had made “extensive efforts” to make amends). Then, a year later, there was the famous Blue Jays game beer toss, which cost a Postmedia employee his job, and left him facing criminal charges. The incident again caused a wave of condemnation on social media.
These two examples show how the public, equipped with digital pitchforks and torches, can force the hand of even the largest brands. Could companies simply issue a condemning statement in an instance like this? Absolutely, but with a caveat. While PR teams need to be prepared to swiftly respond with a strong and unequivocal statement, management and HR teams must also be ready to go further if necessary.
That means crisis plans have to consider if the company is ready to fire an employee if the case is egregious enough, pay severance as appropriate and then potentially have to argue its case in front of a court if the employee sues the company.
The stakes can be really high, as the world saw in May, when Roseanne Barr, the star of a successful reboot of her original Roseanne sitcom, posted a racist tweet. Just hours after the post and resulting online anger, TV network ABC strongly condemned Barr’s comments and cancelled the wildly popular (and financially lucrative) show.
At the same time, responding quickly – or too strongly – can be fraught with legal risk. For example, what if a brand condemns or fires an employee for a criminal offence before that person is proven guilty?
Scotiabank is facing such a case right now, after one of its employees in Toronto was charged with child luring, sexual assault and other offences earlier this month. These are gravely serious allegations, the bank’s name has appeared in many headlines related to this case, and its brand is being damaged with every new article. However, these are also charges that haven’t yet been tested in court. The bank took a balanced and appropriate course of action by refusing to comment given the ongoing investigation, and not answering questions about the worker’s employment status.
It’s clear companies have nowhere to hide when it comes to the reputation damage an off-duty employee can cause to a brand. PR and management teams would be wise to address this reality head-on, rather than reactively trying to fix things in the moment. By then, it could already be too late.