2017 has been a whirlwind of a year, internationally and locally, with the controversies and grand fiascos of high-profile brands and leaders scattered all over the news. While some of us are still feeling the reverberations of these events (and others are right in the midst of damage control), the rest of us could focus on the flip side and glean a couple of constructive leadership lessons from these public blunders and unfortunate incidents. From the widely shared United Airlines incident to our own AFC publicity stunt gone wrong, here are five major lessons a CEO can take away from this year’s major events.
Image: Tracking Wonder
1. Lessons from Pepsi
At a time when tragic stories of police brutality were still ringing in our ears, Pepsi made the mistake of releasing a commercial that featured celebrity model Kendall Jenner resolving a police protest by handing an officer a can of Pepsi. Broadcasted on April 4, it faced massive backlash from netizens who criticised it as a tone-deaf advertisement, downplaying the gravity of an unjust, discriminatory issue that has cost innocent lives. It is understandable that companies want to send timely, relevant, and positive messages through marketing and advertising to promote their brands. However, there are certain issues that are more sensitive than others, and are not to be trifled with. Police brutality and terrorism (such as the 9/11 attack), for instance, are topics that are harder to broach without being offensive.
To make sure the strategical steps you’re taking are in the right direction, get feedback from your employees, as well as your target audience. That could mean launching focus groups, or simply running through your ideas with people who are within your target audience. Even within a company or department, there must have been at least one person from Pepsi who saw the flaw of the commercial. However, they might not have gotten the opportunity to voice their opinions. A good way to avoid that is to encourage more open communication, and for superiors to never ignore feedback and suggestions from lower-rung employees. If all else fails, the best strategy is just to stay away from touchy topics entirely.
2. Lessons from United Airlines
On April 9, 2017, a video emerged of a senior passenger, who was unconscious with a bloodied face, being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight. That particular plane had been overbooked, and needed four seats for the airline employees. When no one volunteered to give up their seat in exchange for travel vouchers, four random passengers were selected to be removed. David Dao was one of them, but unlike the others, he refused to leave. Needless to say, the video documenting the horrifying PR failure went viral.
To a company, the customers and clients are everything. They fuel your business. If you lose them, you lose everything. The United Airlines incident is a perfect example of throwing away arguably the most important part of the company. While their actions in the video were clearly outrageous, at the root of the problem are policies that do not provide the customers fair treatment.
What’s worse is the following statement issued by the airline’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, who referred to the incident in a tone-deaf manner as “re-accommodating these customers”. Later, a private email to his staff leaked, sending shockwaves through the Internet for his apparent lack of remorse or responsibility. Adding fuel to the fire, Munoz praised his employees for following company protocols, and blamed the passenger for being disruptive. It took the CEO two whole days before offering a more sincere apology, but by then, the reputation of United Airlines has gone down the drain.
At the face of a crisis, a leader’s first response is critical. It’s what everyone has been waiting for, so if you stumble here, you and your brand will immediately be attached with negative links. Your message should also be consistent, whether it’s in a public statement, a private letter, or even a one-on-one conversation behind closed doors. You never know who might be listening. In a nutshell, words matter.
3. Lessons from Ofo
Image: Straits Times
This year has seen the rise of a shared cycling culture with the introduction of at least four different bicycle-sharing companies. Ofo was one of them. In the face of competition, one has to stand out to survive. Unfortunately, the way Ofo attempted that resulted in a lot of damage, literally. While other brands required users to pay a deposit before they are allowed to ride a shared bicycle, Ofo went the other direction. In conjunction with the launch of the company, it offered users free rides without having to pay a deposit fee. This promotion was taken advantage of, and civilians begun needlessly destroying, defacing and stealing Ofo bikes.
Ofo’s affordability was meant to be its USP, an attempt to gain users and have Ofo be the favoured bicycle-sharing brand in Singapore. However, it didn’t pan out, and it took Ofo a while to make changes, both to its bicycle design, as well as its procedures, which had to be a costly process. The lesson here is to protect your assets. Customers are no doubt key to your business, but so are the products and services you offer. It’s like if you owned a shop, you wouldn’t leave it unattended without any form of security surveillance even if your customers would benefit from that, would you?
4. Lessons from Asia Fighting Championship
One of the most shocking local events of the year has to be when a publicity stunt at the inaugural Asia Fighting Championship (AFC) went awry. It was September 23 at the Marina Bay Sands, and there was supposed to be a light-hearted celebrity fight between Pradip Subramanian, the president of World Bodybuilding & Physique Sports Federation, and Steven Lim, a local social media personality known for his wacky antics. However, after the conclusion of the muay thai match, the 32-year-old bodybuilder was sent to the hospital, where he died later that night of cardiac arrest. Pradip was a late replacement for Sylvester Sim, a Singapore Idol alumnus, who pulled out due to insurance issues.
Not only were the two celebrities not trained in muay thai, they were not wearing any protective gear either. It was also Pradip’s first muay thai match. Netizens chided the organisers for taking the necessary precautions, and ensuring that the inexperienced fighters knew what they were doing in the ring. Although viewers of pro fighting matches no doubt expected violence, one has to ask, how far are you willing to go for publicity? Every event should be taken seriously, especially one that involves the safety of its participants. Anticipate the worst case scenario, and do everything to prevent it from happening. It’s easy to go for shock value, but if mismanaged, the consequences could be irrecoverable. In the case of AFC, the fighters should have been given safety gear and basic training, and stricter perimeters should have been set. As the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
5. Lessons from Harvey Weinstein
The co-founder of Miramax and a Hollywood bigwig who dominates most parts of the film industry, Harvey Weinstein has all the fame, power and money to act as though he were invincible. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing over decades with his blatant sexual harassment of women in the business, keeping them quiet by threatening to destroy their careers. Since the start of the unravelling of his sex scandals, more than 30 female celebrities (including Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow) have emerged with similar claims against Weinstein, the details of which are both horrifying and hard to swallow. More worrying is the fact that his closest partners and friends claim not to have known a thing about his offences.
Leaders are expected to uphold certain social responsibilities. It is not a role that simply focuses on the economical success of a single entity, but considers the impact and influence on the larger collective as well. How can one ensure that nothing sinister is going on under one’s company? The first step is to establish, or review company policies that protect its customers and employees. Beyond that, one has to confront and change the culture itself and nip the issues in the bud. It is easy to write out a couple of rules, but it takes dedication to enforce them. Take a zero-tolerance stand against such social (and sexual) crimes and discrimination, and make it known to all, especially those in positions of power (such as board members and management executives) whom you should keep all the more accountable. As for yourself, create a circle of ethically motivated individuals and stay accountable to them to make sure you don’t fall short either.