Worse yet, what if someone out there says something true and damaging to the company?
And worst of all, what if someone inside says something damaging to the company?
You know, that scenario that hardly ever happens. Okay, sure -- there was the Chrysler situation. You remember, three years ago an employee of the carmaker’s social-media contractor dropped an F-bomb in a tweet and the world stopped spinning on its axis. Darkness filled the sky. Puppies died.
Oh, wait. Nothing of consequence at all came of it, except for the unnecessary firing of the tweeter by the agency and the agency by the client. (By the way, all while the reverent and circumspect Eminem fronted for the brand.) Even when an Obama hater at KitchenAid inadvertently used the corporate Twitter feed to joke about the President’s grandmother’s death, quick action averted long-term damage -- just as immediate apologies for stupid and cynical “real-time marketing” tweets by AT&T and others diminished the backlash over abusing a national tragedy for brand advantage.
Yet a week doesn’t go by when executives aren’t populating conference sessions devoted to the risks of social-media calamity. Ironic, that. Oh, the episodes of reckless blurting are surely piling up, but not from the foot soldiers. The damage is coming directly from the C-suites. Clearly, the big bosses should worry less about what their lowly employees say in public, and worry more about keeping their own stupid traps shut.
Last week it was the CEO of Barilla, who used the opportunity of a radio interview to vow never to portray gay life in its advertising, “not for lack of respect but because we don't agree with them.” According to a Reuters translation of the interview, Guido Barilla went on to explain: "Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role. … If [gays] don't like it, they can go eat another brand."
Or just run out to Chick-fil-A.
Ha ha. One needn’t dwell on how the fast-food chain’s president Dan Cathy parachuted into the culture wars, confessing to supporting anti-gay initiatives, only to beat a hasty retreat under heavy fire. Or how my pal Vivian Schiller publicly damaged NPR -- and herself -- by taking a public shot at serially wayward employee Juan Williams, whom she advised to keep his ethnically incorrect thoughts “between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist,” or how Whole Foods CEO John Mackey went all Ayn Rand on Obamacare by comparing the Affordable Care Act to fascism.
Like all the others, he immediately embarked on an apology tour -- if you can call it apologizing to say that the perfectly useful econ-text meaning of fascism had been ruined by the “baggage” of WWII and the Holocaust. That’s right. Mackey wasn’t being an irresponsible demagogue. It was history’s fault.
I myself innocently instigated a particularly careless CEO blunder at last year’s OMMA Global event, by asking AOL CEO Tim Armstrong about a proxy fight with shareholders over the prominent (and thus far costly) role of his Patch hyperlocal news network in AOL strategy. In his categorical defense of Patch, Armstrong unaccountably declared: “There’s 10 or 12 investors in our company that matter.”
It was such a reckless thing to say that I, generous and humane spirit that I am, gave him the opportunity to walk back his statement enough not to insult his other several million other shareholders. Which Armstrong sort of did. But if the audience were able to see the thought bubble above my head, it would have said, “How come HE’S the one with the billion dollars?” His probably said: “I hope The Wall Street Journal isn’t covering this event.”
The year’s greatest example of CEOpen-mouth-remove-foot actually came with the unearthing of a 2006 statement from the loathsome Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch. You’ll recall he confessed to/bragged about not carrying women’s plus sizes in his stores, lest their bodies in Ambercrombie clothing send out the wrong message -- i.e., that it is possible to be cool and worthy without being skinny.
I am delighted to report that since that since his scandalous remarks surfaced, Abercrombie’s earnings are down 32% and its stock has dropped 38%, for a loss in market value of $1.53 billion. Q3 earnings are coming soon. My fondest hope is that they are Size 0.
Yo, Mike. Tweet that.