There was an unprecedented reaction from American CEOs after the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jason Sumner also found a surprising number of companies willing to address the controversy on their corporate websites and social media. Does this signal a new approach to managing corporate reputations online?
We often look at corporate websites after a crisis hits to see if companies are doing anything to put their side of the story across online.
Usually we find little or nothing, not even a press statement in the News area. We put this down to risk averse lawyers and conventional PR wisdom – don’t mention it too much and hope the media moves on, which it usually does. This has probably been sound advice.
I expected to find the typical online silence when I started looking at the websites of companies whose CEOs had resigned en masse from Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council following the president’s controversial comments about events in Charlottesville, Virginia– which eventually drove the US leader to disband the panel.
There was the usual reticence on the part of some, but a surprising number of CEOs and companies spoke out on their official digital channels about what led to their decision to quit.
Merck’s CEO, Kenneth C Frazier, was the first to go. There was an announcement on the pharmaceutical company’s Twitter account on August 14th, but we could not find any reference to the resignation on Merck.com.
On August 14th, the same day that Mr Frazier resigned, clothing company Under Armour tweeted a statement from its CEO, Kevin Plank. ‘We are saddened by Charlottesville. There is no place for racism or discrimination in this world. We choose love & unity.’
The next day the company issued a statement in its website’s media section saying Mr Plank had resigned, and the statement still remains at the top of the press releases list on the site. The statement was also tweeted on the corporate Twitter handle.
The Campbell Soup Company also released a statement on August 16th from its CEO, Denise Morrison, on its corporate home page and Twitter. It was still the top feature on the home page nearly a week after Ms Morrison resigned. ‘Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville,’ the statement said. ‘I believe the President should have been - and still needs to be - unambiguous on that point.’
Unusually, Campbell’s opened the statement to comments from readers. There were 145 comments when we checked the site – many in support, but some promising to boycott the company’s products.
Several companies took the usual route of saying nothing on official channels, including investment management company Blackrock. Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi tweeted from her personal account – ‘Hatred and intolerance are a betrayal of what we stand for as Americans.’ - but we couldn’t find any statements on the website or corporate social media
Walmart’s CEO made his announcement in an internal note to employees – we did not find anything on official public channels.
Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schulz got a lot of attention in the media for his statements on the violence in Charlottesville, although he was not part of the president’s manufacturing council. This did not stop the digital team from promoting his stance heavily on the website. A town-hall style meeting he had with employees on August 15th was being promoted heavily in the company’s corporate newsroom, with a feature story titled ‘Hate has no home here’, photographs and short video.
The mix of approaches to presenting the controversy online reflects a wider uncertainty about how best to manage corporate controversies when the combination of social and traditional media can create an ongoing storm of bad publicity that does not 'just go away’ but takes on a life of its own. Unprecedented times could mean more unprecedented communications tactics from corporates - at least in the US.
Indeed, for the moment, this has been a very US-centric debate. An interesting question is whether European or Asian companies will eventually find themselves under similar levels of scrutiny and feel the need to speak out in this way.
Another interesting question arises too. This controversy was external – something the US president said, rather than a home grown scandal, such as the Volkswagen emissions fraud, or Wells Fargo’s fake loans. Will CEOs of larger corporates continue to make the calculation that online silence is the best approach to these kinds of controversies or will the old rules apply?
- Jason Sumner