December 2014 bonus cartoon

For those of us who love a good crisis, 2014 was a very good year.

CEOs offering $1 million for dirt on an unfriendly reporter; company leaders crying foul when their private actions go public; league commissioners demonstrating what they’re made of; a celebrity attempting to intimidate a reporter into killing a story and a tweet to finish off the year that added a nasty social media overlay to a dreadful situation. Ah, yes. It WAS a very good year.

Here are a few lessons from these missteps for all of us who value our companies’ reputations:

Lesson #1: Gunning for the Messenger Shoots You in the Foot. In November, Uber exec Emil Michael caused a firestorm when he suggested hiring investigators to get the dirt on a bothersome reporter to silence her. The intended target was Sarah Lacy, editor of the tech news site Pando Daily. Her reports questioned how Uber operates and clearly raised hackles at the company. Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business, suggested at a private dinner that the company spend “a million dollars” to hire opposition researchers to look into the personal lives and families of journalists, particularly Lacy. They set off a well-earned media inferno. I love this quote from Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “In the torrent of coverage since, Michael has been depicted largely as a boorish bully who apparently thought nothing of stooping to Nixonian tactics to undermine his company’s enemies.” And what does this “torrent of coverage” teach us as business leaders? That going after the messenger is both bad business and damn hard on your reputation. By the way, Emil Michael is still very much employed at Uber. But then he does work for a company whose CEO has since issued another blow to their reputation. At a recent conference of bankers in Las Vegas, Travis Kalanick elicited gasps from the audience when he compared his firm’s problems with local officials to the repression of demonstrators in Ferguson, MO. With a culture like that I’d say bothersome reporters are the least of their problem.

Lesson #2: It’s all public. Deal with it. If you get big bucks to head up a large institution everything you say, in and out of public, is fair game. Two execs proved that during 2014 – Donald Sterling and Centerplate’s former chief executive Des Hague. Both cried foul when the public caught wind of their appalling private moments. Sterling initially claimed his racist rant shouldn’t be held against him because his remarks were part of a private phone conversation. The reaction was outraged howls from fans and protests by the players on the Clippers. For Hague, one of those infamous elevator-cams put his “private” abuse of a puppy on display. He, too, found himself in the dog house. The lesson here is that once you’re the head of a public institution part of your responsibility (and one of the reasons you get that substantial salary) is knowing that everything you do is public property. That includes private glimpses of your personal ethics. And when those ethics smell, expect the stink to waft over to the institution you preside over. Don’t like it? Consider the alternative offered by Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods when he complained about a lack of privacy: “If you don’t like it, give the money back and play golf with your friends on Sunday.”

Lesson #3: Fantasy Sports Gets Folks Angry. When you weave a fairytale about what really happened it’s bound to implode. And when it does, expect a lot of folks to get really angry. I give you Exhibit A: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. His shifting story about what he did or didn’t know about the Ray Rice incident has us all wondering what else he doesn’t know (or doesn’t choose to know). The business take-away from this fiasco is that we want our leaders to lead, not to bob and weave. Not vacillate and fabricate. We want them to take command in difficult situations, acknowledging mistakes and looking for ways to learn from them. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver proved that. He decisively seized the reigns after the Donald Sterling crisis, showcasing Silver’s strong personal ethics and delivering an authoritative, proactive response. Ironically, he’s the junior member of this sports duo. Goodell is a seasoned veteran who went overboard to shield a league under scrutiny. Silver was the newcomer, with only three months on the job, when he banned Sterling for life from associating with the Clippers or the NBA itself and attending a game. He also fined Sterling the maximum allowed – $2.5 million. It was the first test for the new commish and he went to his conscience for his response. His action put the league out of its misery a lot quicker than what’s still happening at the NFL.

Lesson #4: Bullying Reporters Backfires. I truly did not want to touch this one, but Bill Cosby’s behavior in a recent AP interview leaves me no choice. No one knows who’s telling the truth within the cyclone of accusations by women that date back to the 1960s. But, now that the full tape of his AP interview has been made public, everyone knows the truth of how Cosby thinks he can use his power to control the story. In an appalling exchange with an AP reporter he appears to be attempting to intimidate the reporter into cutting his response to his question about the charges (in which Cosby says, “No, no, we don’t answer that.”). After the formal part of the interview, Cosby asks this of the reporter: “Now, can I get something from you? That none of that will be shown?” adding that he thought the AP had the “integrity” not to ask. “If you want to consider yourself to be serious,” Cosby told him, “I would appreciate it, if [the footage] was scuttled.” The big take-away here is that reporters have a job to do and it’s not your job to tell them how. Attempts to use your position to manipulate a news story can and should backfire. On you and on your company. Give the interview. Give it your best and then step aside and let the reporter do his or her job. You no longer get a vote at that point.

Lesson #5: Jumping on Twitter Isn’t Necessarily the Answer. As 2014 waned, the Crisis Goddesses gave us one more to feast upon: the New York Police Department’s follow-on tweet about the Grand Jury’s decision in the Eric Garner Case. In an attempt to be responsive, hip, calming, or something else I don’t understand, they put out this tweet, “The #NYPD is committed to rebuilding public trust. #Wehearyou.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “tone-deaf.” Within an hour of the post by Joanne Jaffe, chief of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau, it was retweeted close to 3,000 times with comments such as: “Is this a joke?” and “You can’t hear us because you’re choking us to death!” The moral here is that social isn’t always the answer and using social too soon is almost always NOT the answer. Many times putting a moment of quiet into the chaos created by a crisis is a good idea.

So Merry Crisis to all and to all an Alright Night!

This column originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2014 Hartford Business Journal
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