“Careful What You Say” – A Lesson in Crisis Communications

Noted televangelist Joel Osteen is quoted as saying those words and then adding, “You can say something hurtful in ten seconds, but ten years later, the wounds are still there.”

Richards Group was the largest independently-owned agency in the U.S., with annual revenue of more than $1 billion. Little did its founder appear to consider his words before weighing in on a conference call with his staff in early October. They were considering a recommendation by two team members to feature Black artists for a multicultural ad campaign for Motel 6.

His reaction that “It’s too Black” and that it would offend “white supremist constituents” were confidentially and subsequently related to media sources by three of the call participants and headlined the news that evening. Stan Richards immediately issued an apology and called it a slip of his tongue. 

Several of the Richards Group’s clients, including Motel 6, Cracker Barrel, Home Depot, Salvation Army, and Keurig Dr. Pepper, immediately dismissed their agency of record. And within two days, Richards announced he was firing himself, saying he would have been fired had he been working for a publicly owned company when he made those remarks. In a release, he admitted making the biggest mistake of his life and one he could never take back.

Glen Dady, who had been with the agency for 40 years, took over management of the agency. He immediately asked for forgiveness and revealed six initiatives to address equality and diversity, including the creation of a new position to administer those issues.

The Lessons Learned

Previous articles have highlighted the change in consumer attitudes about equality and diversity in brands they buy, including a large share of people who would switch brands in the absence of such values in favor of a brand that shares the same principles they hold. Apologies help, but most consumers won’t return once they’ve left and feel they’ve found a brand they can relate to.

Everything’s Public

Today’s leaders and marketers must presume that whatever is privately and confidentially disseminated internally or discussed within the workplace can end up being public. Assume that anything private can become public through a disgruntled employee seeking revenge or a worker who believes that the public has a right to know. 

It’s almost daily that one can find a news article in which a whistleblower has disclosed something revealing, negative, or embarrassing to an employer or former client. There may be legal remedies in some cases but once the information is out there, there’s no way to seal it, especially if it’s damaging to a brand or reputation. 

But If It Happens

In cases like the Richards Group, truth and immediate action are necessary. It was appropriate for Richards to issue an immediate apology. However, Richards’ explaining it away as a “slip of the tongue” sounded more like a terrible excuse. Saying it was wrong and insensitive to make such a statement and sincerely apologizing to everyone whom he offended, which he later did, might have helped sooner than later.

Following up by stating that it was never the agency’s intent to offend Blacks and laying out a plan that would pursue a stronger diversity strategy as Dady announced would have helped as well. Richards’ comments about making the biggest mistake of his life would have also been better received, had he said them immediately after the controversy and not several days later.

Summary

In critical cases like this, the key thing to remember is to acknowledge the issue immediately, accept responsibility, respond clearly and with empathy, and reveal any plans and actions to remedy the situation or to avoid the possibility of it ever occurring again. Delay is not an option.

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