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When the Boss Slips Up…

Posted At: May 21, 2013 8:30 a.m.
by Lindsey Green

Although the PR team for any high profile public figure or institution is probably accustomed to busy schedules and hectic lifestyles, no amount of careful planning can prepare them for when the boss says something inappropriate. We all make mistakes, and sometimes words come out of our mouths that we immediately regret. However, when the person making the mistake is a big time politician or CEO, it can turn into an instant scandal.

Last month, President Barack Obama was speaking at a fundraising luncheon in San Francisco, Calif., when he referred to California Attorney General Kamala Harris as the “best-looking attorney general in the country.”  Although Obama probably didn’t mean anything offensive by it, this quick comment has led to an uproar from women’s rights advocates who called his faux pas sexist and objectifying.

Even worse than a simple slip up is straight up insulting your company’s customers. Irish airline Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary did just that when he said that “all those passengers are stupid who think we will change our policies or our fees” in regards to the airline’s policy of requiring passengers to print off their boarding passes in advance.

However, O’Leary is no first time offender. He is well-known for other colorful remarks, such as “Nobody wants to sit beside a really fat ****** on board. We have been frankly astonished at the number of customers who don’t only want to tax fat people but torture them.” These outrageously offensive statements put the entire airline in a negative light and have even caused boycotts of its services.

When a company is undergoing a major crisis, you would think that its CEO would be very careful with his public comments. This did not appear to be the case with Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, during the 2010 oil spill crisis. His gaffes included selfish apologies like “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back” and drastic understatements like “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” Mistakes like these likely led to Hayward’s replacement later in the year.

So what do you do when this sort of blunder occurs at your company? You have two solid options, the first of which is to apologize outright and move on. When President Obama referred to his bowling score of 129 as being “like the Special Olympics or something” on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” back in 2009, his press secretary issued an apology before the show even aired. He also called Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver from Air Force One, who said that “he expressed his disappointment and he apologized in a way that was very moving. He expressed that he did not intend to humiliate this population.” This sort of immediate and sincere apology helps squelch the issue before it spreads.

The other, more drastic option, is to fire whoever made the offensive comment. This was the case for Don Imus after he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos” on his CBS radio program in 2007. The backlash from this comment included most of the show’s sponsors pulling out and very public criticism from people like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Even though his show brought in about $15 million in revenue for CBS, his insensitive comments were too much for the company.

Either way, honesty is the best policy. Being straightforward with the public, whether it’s in the form of an apology or the termination of an employee, will always help your company in the end. This approach will help the controversy to calm down more quietly and help your company’s image stay clean.

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