8 dumb decisions that damaged reputation

What on earth was Cardinal George Pell thinking when he likened the Catholic Church to a trucking company? Giving evidence to the current Royal Commission into institutional child sex-abuse, Pell said: “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”

How did he imagine that was a good decision, especially when he had to immediately concede to the Commission Chair that the relationship between the priest and a child is quite different to that between the truck driver and a casual passenger. The Cardinal’s ill-advised and widely reported analogy upset just about every party concerned (including the Trucking Association) and could hardly have been worse for the church, already mired in a deeply damaging reputational crisis.

Sadly, high-profile occasions seem to bring out the worst of dumb ideas which damage organizational reputation.

  • Soon after Robin Williams died, Lisa Kovitz blogged on the Edelman website for clients to “seize the day” as a good opportunity to “join the conversation” about depression
  • When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot out of the sky, an insurance firm bought the keyword Malaysia Airlines on Google Adwords and ran an ad saying ‘Is MH17 Malaysian Airlines tragedy a sign to consider life insurance’?
  • An Australian PR company used the downfall of convicted child-sex offender Rolf Harris to promote an art auction
  • Publisher Random House hijacked the #LestWeForget hashtag to promote a marketing message to coincide with Armistice Day’s minute silence held to remember Australia’s war dead.
  • Two days after US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Disney applied to trademark the name “SEAL Team 6” for use on games, snow globes and  TV shows
  • And then there’s the notorious occasion when a British Government media advisor suggested just after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that it would be a good time to “bury bad news”

Of course, all these brain-snap decisions were promptly followed by grovelling apologies and confessions of bad judgment. But the reality is that these and similar failures of common sense have the potential to cause major reputational issues or even crises. Most importantly, the reputational damage can persist for years.  Think of BP boss Tony Hayward’s infamous plea in the wake of a massive oil spill that he would like to “get his life back.” What the New York Times called the “sound-bite from hell” was uttered four years ago, yet it remains a grievous blight on the reputation of the oil giant and its once high-flying CEO.

Dumb decisions are hardly new, but social media now helps ensure that a momentary lapse is more likely to be remembered forever.  As with all crisis management, the best protection is not just a great crisis response plan for when things go wrong, but taking proactive steps to make sure they don’t happen  in the first place.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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