One of the biggest challenges in corporate comms is recognising when you’ll be able to ride a storm out and when serious change is required, eg someone heads for the exit.
What matters most is the ongoing stability and security of the organisation, protecting its reputation and the values it has set. But this can sometimes cause issues when an individual regarded as crucial to the organisation makes a mistake.
I see examples of this every week. A badly misjudged, offensive Tweet from someone’s past resurfaces. Maybe it’s months old, maybe several years. Sometimes it’s a comment on a live TV or radio programme. But, as we’re always told…it was never meant to cause harm. Was it racist? Misognynistic? Body shaming? ‘Absolutely not,’ comes the inevitable reply, ‘that’s just not who we are and we’re terribly sorry if anyone was upset.’
Confusion reigns when the Tweet or comment in question was sent prior to the individual ascending to the prominent position they currently hold. Perhaps it might have been acceptable had a layperson been responsible for saying it, but it’s not acceptable for someone in the position they have now. What should we do?
Organisations tie themselves in knots trying to ride out these public relations storms. Pointing out the failures of others, appealing for ‘context’ to be taken into account, hoping this prominent individual can somehow ‘cling on’ to their position. ‘Give it a few days’, the thinking often goes, ‘and someone else will screw up and take the heat off us.’
This approach has repercussions way beyond the initial message. Now we have an organisation has built a bond with its staff and customers based on particular values and it’s now trying to wriggle away from these values. It’s one rule for some, but another for everyone else. It’s wanting to be seen to care but being someone slightly different at the core. It’s the lack of upholding the values that causes the real damage rather than the original message in question.
The right people and strong leaders are without doubt, hugely important to your organisation. But I would argue the values that made you what you are today are more important. If someone prominent falls short of the values you have set, how you respond will have a huge impact on your reputation going forward. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that the values are what you say they are. But it’s also a situation where the public might see a very different reality and come to believe that those ‘values’ which they still hold dear are not reflected in your organisation.
There is an answer that might help with some of this, particularly relating to social media. When someone is appointed to a leadership role, or other prominent position, make it clear that you hold them responsible for anything they’ve ever said on social media. Provide support if they wish to delete material or, better still, close an entire channel. Saying the offensive material in the first place is bad enough, but having it ‘live’, under their name until the moment they’re caught absolutely makes things worse.
Create a culture where people are responsible not simply for material they currently post on social media, but for their archive too. In the same way, digital TV channels won’t show, or edit material from certain episodes of old comedy shows, your team should treat their entire body of activity on social media as live, active material. Because that’s exactly what it is. Your archive is available, published in its entirely right now. It’s every bit as accessible today as it was 3 months or 4 years ago. It’s not a newspaper that is published one day and then withdrawn to exist only in libraries or if you order back issues. It’s live, public, available, and published NOW. It’s as real today as it was back then and when I read your offensive comment it feels to me exactly as it would were you to say it to my face right now.
We could argue the rights and wrongs of this all day. But it plays out regularly exactly as I’ve described. So learn from the mistakes of others. Accept that your entire social media archive is a live publication. Insist that your staff take full responsibility for it, everyday, and delete or shut down anything they have concerns about before they accept the position with you. That doesn’t mitigate what they might have said in the past but it provides some clarity in terms of who’s responsibility it actually is.
And don’t get me started on the hopeless ‘all views my own’. We should all know by now that this is nothing but an empty disclaimer. It does nothing to protect anyone and serves very little purpose. If it truly is the case that ‘all views are my own’ then insist that individuals take responsibility for them. All too often, organisations behave as though ‘all views my own’ somehow means that whatever was said, doesn’t actually matter.
It should be clear by now that a huge section of the public, from your biggest fans to your harshest critics, feel quite strongly that it does.