When Corporations Act Too Human

June 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

Corporations are often advised to put on a human face. Per legal definitions, a corporation can be construed as a “person” or “entity.” All said, three corporations are acting too human in displaying the mortal traits of defensiveness, insensitivity and petulance.

Toyota LogoToyota: The carmaker’s PR missteps are well-documented; however, a recent behind-the-scenes move has caused more reputational damage. Toyota enlisted Joel Benenson, President Obama’s chief pollster, to test messages that questioned the credibility of two key witnesses who testified against the company on Capitol Hill: safety consultant Sean Kane and auto technology professor David Gilbert. When congressmen upbraided Toyota for this communications initiative, the carmaker said no official campaign had been launched based on the preliminary work.

Per the Washington Post’s description of Benenson’s survey, entitled the Kane/Gilbert Debunking Message Test, it appears to be a “push poll,” often seen in politics when a questioner rattles off negative comments about a candidate and then asks respondents their opinions about the person based on what they just heard. In the political arena, such tactics are less about research and more about disparaging the opposition. This was a bad move by Toyota that smacks of vindictiveness.

Procter & Gamble LogoProcter & Gamble: The company is facing a PR crisis and a federal product safety investigation over claims that its Pampers Dry Max diapers can cause severe rashes and chemical burns. A Facebook page urging the recall of the Dry Max line and the return of Cruisers/Swaddlers has over 10,000 members.

Understandably, and appropriately in theory, P&G is fighting back. They have commissioned independent experts to verify the safety of Dry Max diapers. They have paid for doctor examinations of children said to be affected by the product. They have enlisted influential mommy bloggers to spread the word about the product’s integrity (with all necessary disclaimers about any compensation–mainly product samples and  travel to the Cincinnati headquarters). In its most important factoid, P&G has said that while Dry Max are 20% thinner, their components are not new and have never been associated with burns. All these actions are good.

Where P&G goes wrong is in its tone, first seen in the news release refuting charges against Dry Max. The title “Pampers Calls Rumors Completely False” contains two emotionally charged words, “rumors” and “false,” and the qualifier “completely” just in case we didn’t get the message. “Pampers Confirms Safety of Dry Max” would have been a more positive and dignified start.

Within the release, Jodi Allen, Pampers VP, says:

These rumors are being perpetuated by a small number of parents, some of whom are unhappy that we replaced our older Cruisers and Swaddlers products while others support competitive products and the use of cloth diapers. Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes ‘chemical burns.’

The mood is accusative and defensive, echoed by P&G spokesperson Bryan McCleary in Bloomberg Businessweek: “We’re insulted that someone would imply that our products are dangerous.”

P&G may be furious about the accusations and the social media tactics of their accusers. They may be absolutely convinced that Dry Max diapers are safe and have reams of scientific data to prove it. That still does not bestow license to “take it personally.” Be passionate, be responsive, protect your brand. But don’t get shrill.

BP LogoBP: In what is shaping up to be the year of bad public relations, British Petroleum is leaving Tiger Woods, Toyota and even Goldman Sachs in the dust. The company has obviously read all the PR articles about making your CEO visible and accessible. Unfortunately for BP, that CEO is Tony Hayward. Goldman Sachs’ vilified communications chief Lucas van Praag (see my previous post, “Goldman Sachs: PR and the Bottom Line”) must be relieved that Hayward is now the media’s top source for gaffes and outrageous remarks.

BP incarnate is a solitary executive who has riled the public, elected officials and the media, whose signature line “I would like my life back” has eclipsed “doing God’s work” from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. It is mandatory for any corporation whose products/services impact public wellbeing to undertake preemptive crisis communications planning and training. Of course, many have cited BP as unprepared for the oil rig explosion itself, let alone its subsequent communication duties.


Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Public Affairs, Public Relations, Social Media. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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