11.22.2013

Thinking About Spokespeople

I've been thinking a bit lately how organizational public relations, consumer expectations, and spin control are converging these days in the business world.

I see many CEOs getting in trouble for expressing their personal opinions whenever prompted--or egged on--by press people and causing all sorts of consumer boycotts and market-share loss.

Taking anyone's words out of context is one of today's media's favorite thing to do to stir up the pot. So that should be considered a constant factor in marketing anymore. But how come we are now aghast at CEOs as spokespeople? Or maybe it's just me.

I grew up studying a type of journalism that said "stick to the facts" and "cover all the bases/opinions" and "be thorough." I also grew up studying a type of public relations that said "script your message" and "train your spokesperson" and "delight your customer." So whenever I see a catastrophic quote out there being made into a mountain out of a mole hill, and coming from a CEO no less--spokesperson #1 for any organization--I kinda wonder what set of factors topped along the way to cause so much along the way to go so wrong.

Did the media instigate the CEO's quote? You can probably bet on it. But shouldn't have the CEO's staff have trained their CEO better, especially on how to react to a variety of possible situations? Of course. So why did the CEO still embarrass himself/herself and their organization? Why couldn't they go along with the brand image and stay on message?

The specific examples that I always think of whenever I think about these types of CEO fiascos, or blow ups, are the Chick-Fil-A CEO's anti-gay quote and the Barrilla CEO's anti-gay-commercials quote.

The thing that really stunned me about the Barilla CEO quote is that there are just as many wonderful gay Italians and single parents in Italy, that I can't imagine where the CEO came up with that "traditional" family thing. I guess these "diverse" or "unusual" folks and single-heads-of-household will have to resort to shopping for their pasta from one of the hundreds of pastifici (artisanal, fresh pasta) shops. Which is probably better for them and the local economy anyway.

Part of the problem is that these CEOs don't have a healthy understanding of what private and public boundaries are. They are perfectly entitled to have conservative--some may even say provincial--views in a progressively diversifying marketplace. But when they bring up these conflicting views and decimate the consumer's expectations, it just plainly spells trouble. It erodes their and their company's stake in the marketplace.

And to be honest, when it comes to "anti-gay" CEO statements, I think these CEOs could benefit from some personal supression themselves and shut their mouths. Nowadays, the unspoken mandate is to capture and retain fleeting consumer attention spans, not make enemies and lose millions just to be "right." Being able to  "far bella figura" or have a good image and match the consumer's expectations, is the goal of the game.

Have you noticed how, typically, those who are assigned "spin control" in these instances, are quick-to-market young professionals who have a knack for all the immediate marketing channels (like social media). They may be green, and not have a lot of business experience under their belts, but they can attack the problem with the tools at their disposal and help mitigate explosive situations in the market. Videos and social media messages are launched instantaneously to begin the PR cleanup after these catastrophic CEO spills.

What if these young professionals have the same views as their CEOs? It doesn't matter, because they have enough self control to instead fill a market need and say what the audience needs to hear. What they do or believe "off camera" is a whole 'nother thing. They understand that boundary.

I wish CEOs could have that kind of dynamicity and flexibility, and self control, rather than cornering themselves in these types of situations which erode trust and loyalty in the consumers' minds. Oh well.