What Ancestry.com’s misstep shows brands about diversity and crisis preparedness

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Ancestry.com (and Ancestry.ca for our Canadian readers) has developed quite a cult following since its inception in the 1980s. The company helps consumers uncover their family trees and learn about their genealogy through advanced technology and DNA collection. And, according to the company’s website, it aims “to provide people with deeply meaningful insights about who they are and where they come from.”

Their services have also factored heavily into the hit TLC show, "Who Do You Think You Are?”, that’s taken celebrities like actress and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow, director and talk show host Aisha Tyler and actor Chris Noth (that’s Mr. Big for any Sex and the City fans) on travels near and far to reveal their own family trees and learn more about their history.

But now Ancestry.com is facing intense backlash for an ad that has drawn the ire of social media users for whitewashing and “romanticizing” slavery.

The commercial started running on April 15, but was recently pulled from TV screens and the brand’s YouTube channel following critiques of racist undertones that have spread rapidly, thanks in large part to social media.

The ad depicts a mixed-race couple during the Civil War era: in it, a white man tells a black woman they can be together if they try to escape to the North.

Among the criticism is that mixed-race relationships during that time were typically not romantic in nature, but rather a stark feature of slavery, often marked by extreme violence and sexual assault.

Although the company issued a brief statement apologizing for the misstep, it begs the question: Who thought this ad was a “good” idea? And how is it possible that nobody spoke up against its development and subsequent release?

From an issues and crisis management perspective, it’s likely the blunder stemmed from a lack of diversity at Ancestry headquarters, and perhaps among any creative agency partners that helped develop and execute the ad.

And it’s also symptomatic of how quickly a crisis can accelerate in today’s social media environment.

But where to go from here, and what are some key takeaways for other organizations? Well, it’s critical to have a crisis plan in place, and a crisis communications team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each team member. And it appears that Ancestry could benefit from greater diversity and inclusion on their internal crisis team. This would help the brand -- and any other organization, for that matter -- identify issues more quickly, ideally before they become full-blown crises, and to develop an appropriate response plan for myriad potential and unforeseen scenarios.

Here at Provident Communications, we recently commissioned a study on this very topic, surveying Canadian business decision-makers to determine how they perceive and handle crises. Our insightful 2019 crisis readiness report, Crisis and Consequences, will be unveiled tomorrow, and some of the findings may surprise you.

For instance, we uncovered some startling statistics on diversity in terms of how many respondents feel their crisis teams are diverse when it comes to race, gender and culture. Similarly, you might be surprised to learn whether companies believe social justice movements can have an impact on a brand’s reputation, and whether they feel they are properly equipped to recover their reputation in the face of an active crisis.

Stay tuned for the full reveal tomorrow, and be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter, Provident View, to be among the first to receive our new report. You won’t want to miss it.