"Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies."
When Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, penned the above tweet about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, he sent the company into crisis response mode. Cathy, who previously spoke out against gay rights, was not commenting on behalf of his organization, but did the popular eatery's customers and employees know this? Doubtful. The company quickly released a public statement stating that Cathy's views did not necessarily represent the views of Chick-fil-A customers, restaurant owners and employees.
Likewise, when John Mackey, the founder and co-CEO of the popular market Whole Foods, compared Obamacare to socialism and then four years later to fascism, he clearly wasn't speaking on behalf of the company's largely liberal customer base, employees and vendors.
Nevertheless, the company had to go into damage control to avoid continuing boycotts. Even Mackey eventually backtracked on his "poor word choice," but it was too late to not cause some short-term damage.
These two examples do not necessarily represent the normal, everyday situations in firms and organizations where the leader's personal beliefs can threaten the reputation (and sometimes the bottom line) of the organization. More common are situations such as the chief executive or managing partner supporting a political candidate or officeholder by making a contribution or hosting a fundraiser.
The support does not equate into an endorsement by the executive's entire organization, but sometimes it can be perceived as such or exploited by those who dislike the company or the candidate the executive supports. A more common everyday situation is the boss or managing partner's role as chairperson of an outside corporate (e.g., an oil company) or nonprofit (e.g., an ideological think tank or religious organization) board that is not universally beloved for sundry reasons. In this capacity, the person's organization could also be vulnerable to unfair criticism.
As an associate at a firm or as an employee, what can you and your colleagues do to ensure that your boss does not become the embodiment of the organization should he or she insert foot into mouth? The key is to prepare in advance by getting informed. Here are two preliminary steps you can take today before any possible damaging scenarios transpire.
First, work to understand your managing partner or chief executive's beliefs. Have a candid, yet respectful, conversation with your executive about what beliefs, issue positions and political candidates he or she supports and opposes that could prospectively injure the greater organization's public image and bottom line.
This does not mean you have to delve into his or her deeply personal beliefs; rather, it should be viewed as taking the opportunity before a threat emerges to have an open discussion and strategize should there be blowback among your important audiences for an inappropriate remark. Provide examples of leaders at comparable organizations who made the mistake of not preparing in advance to demonstrate what could occur if your company or firm does not plan accordingly. And practice answering possible tough questions through mock interview sessions.
Second, make sure that your executive understands the power of today's 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week media environment. Everything is on the record. An assumed quiet conversation in the hallway can be heard and turned into a maddening Facebook post, blog or tweet posted anonymously that slams the organization.
Still, let's realize that all the preparation in the world cannot stop a hard-charging executive from publicly expressing himself or herself on all kinds of matters. If this happens at your firm or organization, it's critical to assess the potential harm and act accordingly. First, evaluate what your executive said or wrote. Likely, there are shades of gray here in terms of the prospective damage. Determine whether it would behoove you to get out in front of what could become a media maelstrom and release a public statement separating the executive's comments from your organization's position.
Factors that you should consider before making this decision include the inflammatory nature of the comment and the timing of when the comment was made. Was it made when no one was around or there was something else in the news — locally or nationally — that would trump any faux pas volunteered by your executive? If you and your communications team determine that your executive's words were indeed inflammatory and inappropriate, then be sure to distance your company from them with a statement that is distributed to your most important audiences, such as clients or customers and staff.
Let's face it: Perception is reality in today's world. Show your executive the possible financial and reputational impacts his or her personal beliefs can have on the company before it happens and prevent your company from trending the wrong way on Twitter or splashing across the front page of your local or industry newspaper.
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients' strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.