Reputation crises can strike from any direction, as Woolworths found in the furore over Sydney radio host Alan Jones. The shock jock was exposed telling a Young Liberals dinner that Prime Minster Julia Gillard’s recently deceased father had “died of shame” because of his daughter’s alleged political lies.
The sorry saga of his ill-advised “non-apology” and his advertisers abandoning the show has already received more publicity than it deserves. But of real interest for issue and crisis managers is the unexpected fallout for one of Australia’s largest retailers and whether their response was appropriate.
The dinner in question was compered by Simon Berger, a Liberal political hopeful who donated for auction a jacket made from a chaff bag, a reference to a previous remark by Alan Jones that the Prime Minister should be “put into a chaff bag and dumped out at sea.” Unfortunately Berger was identified in the news media as a Community Relations Manager for Woolworths, and the social media retribution was swift and brutal.
Woolworths said in a Facebook statement it did not support the comments made at the dinner and would halt its advertising, but that Berger had attended in a private capacity. That didn’t satisfy the Twitterati, who hijacked a Woolworths’ Facebook discussion to “invent a new ice-cream flavour”. Suggestions posted included: Sack Berger with chaff bag ripples; Lies and defamation in a twisted sick waffle cup; Anything that will choke a certain radio personality; Misogynistic mint sprinkle, and much more in the same vein.
One person commented: “Woolworths. You can try to divert attention by putting up a trivial question like this. But the people of Australia who spend their hard earned money in your stores are still waiting to find out why you do not denounce misogyny and the actions of your employees who support it. We are waiting to hear from you.”
They didn’t have to wait long. Berger resigned, saying he didn’t want to his employer to be attached to any further controversy. And both he and Woolworths emphasised again that he had attended in a private capacity. But arguing that it was a private action isn’t much of a defence (Ask former EnergyWatch Boss Ben Polis who had to resign after a personal tweet). The incident raises some questions:
- Did Woolworths do enough to protect their reputation?
- Was it sufficient to say they did not support the comments made?
- Should the company have explicitly stated its views on the controversy?
- Should they have apologised?
- Was it a sacking offence?
Just a few days later, an employee at US appliance-maker KitchenAid posted a similar supposedly funny remark that even President Obama’s grandmother knew his presidency would be bad, and she died three days before his election. Unfortunately the tweet accidentally went out to 25,000 followers on the corporate account. Brand Manager Cynthia Soledad provided a case study in how to respond to employee misbehaviour.
“A member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. The tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid, and that person won’t be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I lead the KitchenAid brand and I take full responsibility for the whole team. I personally apologise to President Barack Obama, his family and the Twitter community for this careless error. Thanks for hearing me out.” Genuine, heartfelt, brief and personal.
Why do some people and some companies find that so hard?