Here’s a very real fact of life regarding the line between effective and dangerous communication: You have to read the room. Understand the audience and their mood. Things that might be taken one way in a certain context will be understood in an entirely different way in another context.
This fact of communication is something that social media teaches us over and over again. Statements, especially when bereft of context, can become incredibly destructive online. And, as the recent PR issue faced by Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf can ably attest, the passage of time doesn’t lessen the blow.
In September, Scharf faced a barrage of negative comments and press after statements he made about black executives in the financial industry went public. In a memo sent to employees months earlier, Scharf stated: “… there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from …”
Now, some might wonder about the context of that statement. When was that statement made? Was he answering a question, lamenting a problem, or simply making an observation without any inference? In the modern media environment, those questions tend to get short shrift. That segment of a sentence created a PR problem for Wells Fargo. Especially when it was picked up by social-media-savvy politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who knew the sound bite would activate her base. AOC tweeted: “Perhaps it is the CEO of Wells Fargo who lacks the talent to recruit black workers …”
Bang … the narrative took off like a shot was fired.
Almost immediately, Scharf found himself walking back a partial sentence from an internal company memo that had been completely leached of all context. There was no question whether or not he would address the issue. Wells Fargo has been wading through one self-imposed PR disaster after another. The company cannot afford another setback.
So, Scharf admitted he spoke out of “unconscious bias,” adding, “There is no question Wells Fargo has to make meaningful progress in increasing diverse representation …” followed by a statement pledging that his company would “increase hiring of minority candidates” by actively recruiting from traditionally black universities.
But that was just the beginning. By the time the story made the leap from social media to traditional media, intrepid reporters built context around the statement and the backlash. Those stories put added pressure on all the larger banks, presenting facts such as “none of the six big Wall Street banks have ever had a black or female CEO …”
Suddenly, bank executives who had nothing to do with Scharf’s meme or the months-later fallout were asked questions about their own minority hiring practices. And that’s exactly how fast and immediate a PR crisis can explode into your life. You have to be ready and able to pivot to deliver a clear, concise and positive message while potentially being excoriated by your potential customers … sometimes for something you didn’t even do.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR.