Similar Crises, Different Responses: Why Some Companies Suffer More than Others
August 14, 2013
August 14, 2013
Ask almost anyone about Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay stance and you’re sure to hear a slew of opinions, comments, interpretations, positions – you name it. In fact, for many folks, simply hearing the name “Chick-fil-A” leads their mind immediately to words such as “controversy,” “crisis,” and “negative public image” rather than visions of tasty chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. Ask folks about Urban Outfitters’ anti-gay views, however, and the reaction may not be so automatic. Instead, people think first of “retail,” “hipster,” “fashion,” and “style” and then might recall that Urban Outfitters has a long history with anti-gay, racist, and sexist controversies and accusations. While many people know that Chick-Fil-A donated almost $2 million to anti-gay organizations in 2010 (source: Equality Matters), very few are even aware of Urban Outfitters’ racist “Navajo” clothing line, donations to right-wing causes, and offensive greeting cards. So why do crises and controversy cling to one company and evade the other? Well, it just might boil down to a few simple factors: • Perceived image of company – The severity of the backlash a company faces in a time of crisis has to do with how the public viewed the company prior to the event. For example, part of the reason many were outraged at Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay stance was because the company was perceived as a family-owned business with strong values; for many fans, Chick-fil-A was associated simply with warmth, positivity, and good chicken. Urban Outfitters, on the other hand, is a retail clothing store without much of a “personal” identity to live up to. And perhaps because of Urban Outfitters’ funky and easygoing style, consumers that heard rumors of anti-gay, right-wing donations simply refused to believe them. • Leadership visibility – For some businesses, the leadership and the company itself are indistinguishable. At Chick-fil-A, the Cathys are the company. In other words, because the chain emphasizes its family ownership so heavily, any personal views the Cathys espouse are representative of the views of the entire company. At Urban Outfitters, by comparison, ask any shopper who their President is and you’d be hard pressed to find an answer. Thus when Richard Hayne, CEO and President, donated over $13,000 to notoriously conservative anti-gay politician, Rick Santorum, it went largely unnoticed by the clothing company’s fans. • The products it sells – You can find fast food on any street corner, but witty graphic tees, good quality skinny jeans, and affordable accessories? That’s harder to come by. Urban Outfitters has a very specific product type that is infrequently replicated elsewhere. So perhaps people do care about Urban Outfitters’ morals, but are willing to turn a blind eye because its products are unique and in-style. • As luck would have it – And last, of course, there’s an element of pure chance. A crisis and its backlash is affected by who speaks out, the timing, who catches wind of the news, and several other factors that are simply out of the company’s control. So what is a company to do in these circumstances? Most importantly, be aware of the social climate and current controversies to avoid making any faux pas. Also be cognizant of how visible your leadership is. If a CEO is widely associated with the company, it’s probably worth investing in media training and at the very least, determining a social media policy for employees. With that said, if your company’s social views and values contradict the current social climate, don’t intentionally distort or hide them. Consumers do not appreciate insincerity and the truth will likely out eventually. No matter what position your company takes, be prepared for negative reactions and remain dedicated to your mission. Ultimately it’s difficult to predict how a controversy will affect any company, but by remaining aware of the social climate and enforcing focused, relevant public comments, companies may stay in the public’s good graces.