As business culture changes as a result of both the pandemic and generational shifts, employees can easily act in ways that, while acceptable some years back, are wholly unacceptable today. When that happens, the C-suite must act quickly to prevent reputational damage.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote of the firing of a top Apple executive, one who had accomplished enormous things for the company that contributed directly to the company’s bottom line. That executive was approached by a social media influencer as he drove up to a car show, off the clock, at which point the executive paraphrased a line from the movie “Arthur,” released more than 40 years ago—before many current customers and employees were born—and added an inappropriate reference to women’s bodies.
The remark was clearly spur-of-the moment and silly. Had there been no one filming the comment for social media, maybe there would’ve been some yucks and maybe it would’ve been forgotten almost as soon as it was uttered. Instead, the video was posted to TikTok, where it was eventually seen by millions.
Apple demanded the executive’s resignation, and when he refused, the executive was fired. “It was 22 years dissolved in about 25 seconds,” the executive said.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Was Apple right to remove that loyal executive who spent decades helping the company become more successful, over a brief, lewd throwaway line? Yes.
We live in an age where information travels at the speed of light. In a single post, social media can make or break a person. It’s okay to lament this situation, but communicators must absolutely own it.
More to the point: Workplaces are more diverse than they’ve ever been, though still not diverse enough. It’s imperative for CEOs to create a welcoming environment that’s free of hostility. Women and people of color have historically faced immense challenges in advancement, in large part because the workplace environment has been filled with demeaning comments and dumb attempts at humor, just like that offered up by the Apple executive, as well as overt racism and sexism.
Brands aren’t simply a logo and tagline or a product or service. Brands are also the people working behind them. So, when a brand offends—either with intent or without—the best way to manage the situation can be pulled from the Crisis Management 101 handbook: Admit you’re wrong, apologize, fix the problem and move on. Doing so will eliminate protracted battles—and negative news coverage—that can weaken brands over time.
Apple might have weathered the story reasonably well, with minimal or no impact on sales. Not acting, though, would’ve sent a terrible message to the company’s associates: This person’s value to his business unit is greater than the harm we cause our employees by saying and doing nothing.
Historically, brands have done a great deal of research before discontinuing an offensive name, logo or tagline. After these extensive review periods, sometimes they’ve done the right thing, and other times they clearly haven’t. It doesn’t take a multimillion-dollar marketing study to determine if a name or logo should be changed. If it harms a community, change is in order.
The Washington Commanders adopted their new name some 20 years after Native Americans first opposed the team’s previous name, with was offensive to that population. The team’s ownership resisted change for years, as have the owners of other professional sports teams, like the Atlanta Braves. Every time a news story runs about the controversy over the Braves’ name—14,400 Google News results under “Atlanta Braves name controversy”—it weakens the brand.
For too many years, companies have defended insensitive and downright offensive behavior by rationalizing their actions. “They don’t really mind,” goes the oft-heard explanation. Or, “it’s all in good fun.” Or, so-and-so is “a good sport.”
Except that they do mind. It’s not fun for them. And it’s not so much that the subjects of such comments are good sports, but that they feel powerless to create change. Customers, associates, business partners, shareholders and other key stakeholders roll their eyes, but they also change their behavior. They stop visiting the business. They decide to take a job elsewhere.
Why let controversy eat away at a brand slowly, or worse, create a crisis? If a company leader doesn’t reflect core values, they must be removed from their role. Length of service and contributions to the bottom line can’t be considerations. Companies must live their values.
For those who think such considerations are simply political correctness run amok, or part of some cancel culture conspiracy, the line is a bright one: Will a significant number of stakeholders find it offensive? Cancel culture implies rash decision-making resulting from a perceived injustice. In a situation like the one described above, a company must act fast, but not impulsively. I see that as a critical distinction. Also, is a single person harmed or a community? That’s a second critical test.
The Apple executive was on his own time and riffing on a line from a very old movie. Yet, coming from an executive, a company leader, the message was unacceptable because it was demeaning.
Was the comment by the Apple executive as harmful as harassing or assaulting an employee? Of course not. Still, that’s no reason not to do something. Taking action will serve to protect that company’s reputation, while also setting a tone that such behavior isn’t tolerated.
I’m guessing it will be a while before the next Apple executive makes a crass comment in public.
David A. Ball is President and Founder of Ball Consulting Group, LLC, a strategic communications firm that specializes in health care, nonprofits, education and crisis communications.