A few decades ago it was a bit harder for people to express their views on certain issues they disagreed with; there were limited methods of communication, with emails only just arriving and online messengers in the far-off future. This left many with few options – either call, write letters or speak face-to-face. Fast-forward into the 21st century, and the abundance of social media platforms and increased digital presence of the global population has meant that it has become extremely easy to share messages – and opinions – to people across the world.
In the late 20th century, chief executives of high profile companies could get away with dealing with minimal backlash following any inappropriate comments they’d made. But in a world where there are now almost as many mobile phone contracts as there are humans, and a predicted number of 6.1bn people having smartphones by 2020, senior executives of all companies – from multi-million pound corporations to SMEs – must tread carefully in the public eye, or they risk causing serious damage to not only themselves, but the company they represent.
Corporations can tackle this by introducing public relations teams who are skilled in media training. These professionals ensure that the representation of the company isn’t tarnished by silly remarks made by its figureheads. However, many superiors are often afraid of embracing public relations, which puts their company at risk.
There are a number of incidents where outspoken CEOs have faced fierce public backlash due to inappropriate comments, some even as recently as this week. On August 16th 2015, the online media domain exploded with a controversial news story destined to cause outrage.
Patrick Couderc, UK director of global fashion brand Hervé Léger, hit the headlines after saying in an interview that the fashion houses’ infamous bandage dress was not to be worn by “voluptuous” women, women with “very prominent hips and a very flat chest” and gay women. Within an hour, his comments had gone viral, igniting an angry debate among the public. Two days later, it had been reported that Mr Couderc had been axed from the brand, leaving the company’s crisis communications team to issue a statement distancing itself from its former director in order to save face.
You would think that this issue would occur infrequently – after all, the need for proper media training and briefing for high-profile, public facing employees is well known and regularly encouraged. But it seems as though many CEOs often think they are above this.
In 2013, another fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, suffered from the inappropriate comments made by its CEO Michael Jefferies. He created controversy with his “preference for ‘cool kids’ as shoppers at his stores”. Jefferies said that the reason the company did not sell clothing in larger sizes was because he didn’t want overweight people wearing the brand.
Although this comment was made in 2013, it would be something that would in later years become a huge problem for the company as a whole. At the end of 2014, Jeffries announced that the company was “clearly disappointed” with its financial results, with sales falling to $911.4m from $1.03bn – a figure over $60m less than expected. Although the CEO wasn’t axed after his controversial comments, it is likely that the remarks were a contributing factor to the decline in sales for the company.
Indeed, most CEOs and executives understand the importance of being properly media trained, but those who feel that they can go at it alone – or shy away from it – usually fall hard when the lights and cameras are placed in front of them. Although there are dozens of examples, the two mentioned previously are perfect representations of how senior executives must adopt the appropriate communication methods, or they risk destroying a brand image that undoubtedly took many years to carefully construct.