CEO PR Gaffe of the Week, Barilla Edition

Posted on September 27, 2013 
Filed Under Corporate Responsibility, Crisis Management, Internal Communication, Media Relations, Media Training

What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?

It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.

Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.

“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”

This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.

And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.

In fact, if you Google phrases like “When CEOs say dumb things,” you come up with a goldmine of journalism on the topic. Here are examples from BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, and CEO.com.

I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.

What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:

• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

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