How Offensive Is Your Organisation? Corporate Story

Or how brave should you or your organisation be in the face of criticism that you are or have been offensive or ‘inappropriate’?

Some related reputation management incidents will no doubt have caught your attention recently:

  • Waitrose sought the resignation of its magazine editor, William Sitwell, after freelance journalist, Selene Nelson, revealed how ‘shocked’ she was about the negative (albeit jokey) comments he made about vegans in an email to her. Nelson appeared less shocked, tweeting ‘good’ and ‘#animalrights’, after seven Spaniards were gored to death during the running of the bulls event in Pamplona
  • Luton Airport purchased 10 self-propelling wheelchairs after a passenger declined a wheelchair pushed by a member of staff because that would have compromised his independence and be ‘humiliating’. At the time, the Airport defended its actions and said that the passenger had declined all offers of help. Social media footage of the passenger dragging himself through the airport on his hands had gone viral (although some wondered whether it was more ‘humiliating’ to so drag yourself around an airport than use the wheelchair, so maybe it’s just a matter of individual perspective)
  • Swim England which exists to get more people to take up swimming, backtracked (or is that backstroked?) after a gender studies student took offence to an article on its website, subsequently deleted, that offered advice to women on what to wear in the water if they were self-conscious about their body shape

In dealing with ‘offence’, organisations seem to prefer a short-term focus on dealing with the offence rather than longer term reputation management by being open about what gave rise to it and how they have changed.

Waitrose reacted swiftly, ensuring that Sitwell was bundled out of the door. But not because his real crime – since he was effectively a marketer for Waitrose – had been to make fun of a customer segment that Waitrose is targeting. “Even though this was a private email William’s gone too far and his words are extremely inappropriate, insensitive and absolutely do not represent our views”. Has Waitrose revisited its email policy or just moved on?

Luton Airport’s initial response to their story was that the passenger was to blame. “Our teams worked hard to find a solution, offering Mr Levene an assisted wheelchair as a temporary replacement. Mr Levene declined all offers of help. Whilst we apologise if Mr Levene was dissatisfied with the service he received, we are satisfied that our agents and staff did all they could in difficult circumstances.” Maybe by now purchasing different wheelchairs, Luton Airport has re-thought how it could enable disabled people to travel on equal terms with non-disabled passengers. And thereby improve its customer service. It has not admitted that it now thinks that it previously had a flawed process.

Swim England originally published the offending article eight years ago. It clearly did not think the article sexist at the time. Maybe in the intervening years no member of the public had read the article. Perhaps nobody was sufficiently offended by it to complain publicly about it. Or maybe society has redefined what is or is not sexist. If it was in some was in some way objectively offensive, then the issue is what protocols has Swim England put in place to ensure it cannot happen again?

One way of looking at these corporate statements is that they do not apologise for what is really at heart here: criticising one’s own customers; failing to provide a higher level of customer service; posting sexist articles. In reality, they apologise for offence caused (or in Luton Airport’s case, blame the customer before changing its mind, deciding he had a point after all and purchasing self-propelling wheelchairs).

It feels as though in rushing to soothe and smooth over, organisations are not checking their reputations against some objective, verifiable standard of thinking and behaviour. Instead they are opting for the fastest route to a quieter life. And is that the best way to a trusted relationship with your publics?

Another way of looking at it is that businesses are fuelling the case against business by not standing up for themselves. If you’re not brave or honest enough to say that you are having Sitwell fired for attacking customers but instead for causing offence, then you encourage those who see offence in everything to criticise you. In the justifiable expectation that you will roll over. And where does that lead?

And amidst all this, the pejorative word “inappropriate” would make a buzzword bingo card these days. Organisations recoil when accused of it and then replay it to justify their short-term reputation management decisions. The term goes unchallenged, denoting not just disapproval but claiming that there is a demonstrable societal consensus about a word or behaviour and that all must abide by it. Users are freed from articulating any specific criteria for it or arguing a moral dimension. The use of the phrase “that’s inapprorpiate” does not require the critic to explain it as something objectively wrong or immoral. It is merely self-evidently wrong.

One of the factors explaining Trump’s popularity is that small-town America got fed up of being told by East and West coast liberal, metropolitan elites how to think, speak and behave. Fearful and resentful of ‘political correctness’, they took to a populist who gave them permission to feel and express themselves as they felt. Which is not to say that they are right. It’s just that condemning them as wrong and bad can generate a backlash and is not the way to secure real change in thoughts and behaviours.

At the heart of this blog post is a sense that organisations hate disagreeing with their publics. It’s why the media was agog when Elon Musk told a financial analyst that he was boring and that he didn’t want to answer his questions.

While disagreement does not require the giving or taking of offence it is certainly a necessary condition of offence. Organisations seem to have taken a position that to prevent the possibility of offence, they should look first to prevent the possibility of disagreement. And where does such self-censorship lead?