WHILE I WAS ROOTING–What we learned this month in crisis communications

By Dennis Culloton

CEO, President

It’s no secret this space is reserved for Cubs fans and we’ve often used Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s wit and witticisms to illustrate larger crisis communications leadership truths.

As we lick our wounds from being eliminated from the National League Championship playoffs by the Los Angeles Dodgers (3 home runs including a Grand Slam by Dodger’s Outfielder Kike Hernandez to knock us out!) and head into the offseason, Maddon did not disappoint and put things in perspective, noting that the Cubs have made three straight trips to the postseason–playing more postseason games than any team in baseball in that time period.

Maddon gave his young team credit for competing and said the experience of this season will make them stronger. “You think you learn some things from your past and you implement them and see if they actually do work,” he said. “I thought I learned, the results appear as if I did learn something from a lot of failure.”

To Joe and the guys, well done. Let’s reclaim the trophy next year. But speaking of learning from your mistakes, while we were distracted by baseball playoffs, let’s review a strange trend in crisis media taking place in the skincare world, as observed by our contributor Nicolette Wagner:

Skincare brand Nivea is catching backlash (again) after a lotion advertisement released in Africa promotes their product will give users “visibly lighter skin.” Social media has exploded with claims that the ad is “racist” and “colorist” and is urging that the ad be pulled. Twitter users are expressing their distaste for the ad by using the hashtag #PULLITDOWN. Nivea has yet to make a statement in regard to claims of racism. This comes less than a year after the company created and pulled an online ad with the slogan “White is Purity”. 
 
 Doesn’t this feel like déjà vu? 
 
 It has not even been a full month since Dove was on the receiving end of disgruntled tweets over a body wash advertisement. The gif depicted an African-American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a Caucasian woman who then removed her shirt to reveal another woman. In the full ad, each woman appeared with a bottle of Dove Body Wash which Dove said “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity.”

The ad was shared upwards of 10,000 times and was often accompanied by the hashtag #boycottdove. Dove pulled the ad the next day and apologized for the offense claiming the advertisement simply “missed the mark.”

With so many shining examples of how things can go wrong, the question arises: when will companies learn?

But after watching companies miss the mark time and time again, I am beginning to think the correct question is not when, but if?

I’ve been in crisis communications for 25 years. My private practice and the crisis communication students Lynn Holley and I teach at University of Illinois all benefit from these public relations gaffes–if they really are gaffes. If it is a case of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” then Nivea and Dove are the latest great examples of that adage attributed to P.T. Barnum. But in these turbulent times, these ads seem to be a better example of one of my cardinal rules–having someone in the room to ask the tough questions about the impact of an initiative. As we put it here recently: “Expect the Unexpected and Avoid the Self-Inflicted.” Playing out the rest of the story, let alone researching potential consumer response, can save your brand from a whitewash backlash.