Can corporations set a strong leadership example by standing up for such moral values as respect and tolerance?
Not only do they have a responsibility to do so: as some recent incidents indicate, companies are being thrust into the public eye unexpectedly, yet are responding by taking the initiative to “do the right thing” without regard to public opinion or consumer preferences.
It’s important, first, to understand the context: November’s Presidential election was followed by several reports of “bad behavior” across the country.
For example, administrators of a school district near Wichita Falls, Texas were called upon to deal with racially charged comments made by some of their students at a volleyball tournament. Archer City ISD’s superintendent said students from his district began chanting, “Build that wall!” at students from an opposing school district, which sits on the Texas-Mexico border.
Elsewhere in November, Muslim women in hijabs reported harassment and intimidation following the election.
In the month following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center received reports of 1,094 bias-related incidents. By late December, however, the reports slowed down significantly compared to the days immediately following the election.
When such incidents involve corporations, what should be the response? In three instances, corporations have demonstrated that they can respond with actions that speak much more effectively than words, reflecting strong corporate values.
In November, the Washington Post reported on video shot aboard a Delta airlines flight, showing a man in a ball cap standing in the aisle of the airplane.
“We got some Hillary b—— on here?” he shouts. “Come on, baby!” he continues. “Trump! That’s what I’m talking about. Hey, baby! Donald Trump! He’s your president, every g—— one of [you]. If you don’t like it, too bad.”
The man was allowed to remain on the flight from Atlanta to Allentown, Pa. But Delta later apologized for the disruption, saying that it shouldn’t have allowed him to stay in the plane.
“We are sorry to our customers who experienced this disruption,” the company said in a statement a few days after the flight. “We have followed up with the teams involved, and all agree that this customer should not have been allowed to continue on the flight.”
The statement continued: “Our responsibility for ensuring all customers feel safe and comfortable with Delta includes requiring civil behavior from everyone. The behavior we see in this video does not square with our training or culture, and follow up will continue so we can better ensure our employees will know they will be fully supported to make the right decisions when these issues arise.”
In a memo sent to Delta employees two days later, Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said that the man “will never again be allowed on a Delta plane.”
“This individual displayed behavior that was loud, rude and disrespectful to his fellow customers,” Bastian wrote. “After questioning the customer, our team members made the best decision they could given the information they had and allowed him to remain on the flight. However, if our colleagues had witnessed firsthand what was shown in the video, there is no question they would have removed him from the aircraft.”
Bastian said the company would refund customers the cost of their tickets, and said he wants employees to know “we have your backs.”
“The heightened tension in our society means that now more than ever we must require civility on our planes and in our facilities,” he wrote. “We must stay true to Delta’s core values and treat one another with dignity and respect. We also must remain committed more than ever to the safety of our customers and our crewmembers. We will not tolerate anything less.”
One month later, a white woman shopper at a JCPenney store at a mall in Louisville, Ky., went on an “expletive-laden tirade” against two Latina women caught on video and reported by NBC News.
“Everybody here probably feels the same way I do,” the unidentified woman, says in the video after she sees one of the Latina shoppers checking out and the other joining her at the register with a last-minute purchase.
“Hey, tell them to go back where they belong. They can’t act like the hero, they come here to live and act like everybody else,” the woman continued, as other shoppers looked on. “Get in the back of the line like everybody else does and be somebody. That’s the way I look at it. You’re nobodies, just because you come from another country, it don’t make you nobody.”
She then berated the two as “probably on welfare.” One started to respond, and the woman said, “It’s OK, speak English. You’re in America. If you don’t know it, learn it.”
According to the report, after the video ended the woman continued, “to just racially heckle these women, and again, she made specific comments regarding Donald Trump and fixing it, he’s going to get this country together again, he’s going to make it great again.”
As the video spread online, JCPenney issued a statement that it was “deeply disturbed” by the incident “in which one customer made extremely inappropriate remarks to two other customers.”
“We absolutely do not tolerate this behavior in our stores, and are working with our associates to ensure any future incidents of this nature will be addressed quickly and appropriately,” the company said. “JCPenney is asking for the community’s help in identifying the two women who were targeted for such remarks, as we would like to reimburse them for their entire purchase and offer a sincere apology for their experience.”
The mall’s management said it was working with JCPenney to identify the woman and, once she was identified, would permanently ban her from the mall.
End of a franchise
In early January, an African-American woman took her two young children to a Dairy Queen in Zion, Ill., 50 miles north of Chicago. When she received her order, she noticed that part of it was wrong and part of it was missing. She asked the owner to correct it, but he refused. Then she asked for a refund. That’s when things turned ugly.
“He called me and my children n—–; he said I can go back to where I came from,” Ford told The Washington Post.
The woman asked the owner for his name, to report him to Dairy Queen’s corporate headquarters. Answered the man: “Bill Clinton — better yet I’m Donald Trump.”
“He took out his flip phone and he said he would take a picture and put it on Facebook because he wants to show the world what kind of n—— he has to deal with,” she said. “Then he shut the window and walked away.”
The woman called police, who found her in the Dairy Queen parking lot in tears. The officer spoke with the store’s owner, who did not deny the woman’s account, and who continued to use the n-word in when he spoke with the officer. There was little police could do, however; the city’s police chief said, “while this alleged activity is deplorable, it is not criminal.”
The woman then posted about the incident on Facebook. She also called Dairy Queen’s corporate headquarters.
The next day, the company released a statement saying the owner’s actions were “inexcusable, reprehensible and unacceptable. We do not in any way condone his behavior or language.” Dairy Queen also released an apology from the owner and said he and his employees would undergo sensitivity training.
But one day later, as local groups were organizing a protest, the company went an additional step, announcing that it was closing Zion, Ill. location and was terminating the owner’s franchise rights.
The incidents again underscore the unprecedented power and reach of social media. But they also provide several lessons for corporate executives and their public relations professionals:
- In each instance, the corporation involved acted quickly and decisively. As accounts of the incidents spread on social media, the three companies did not hesitate to act publicly. Had any of the companies taken more time to decide a course of action, such hesitancy could have harmed its reputation.
- Such decisiveness indicated that the companies had already defined their core values. They responded to the incidents by adhering to those values, whether that meant respecting passengers, ensuring the safety of shoppers or rejecting racism.
- In taking their actions, none of the companies appeared to stop to gauge public opinion or customer sentiment. Their responses reflected foundational, core values and principles.
Perhaps most important: the best PR is not always a statement, but action. In the case of Dairy Queen, it terminated the franchisee’s contract. What action is your organization ready to take to reinforce its values? Are you ready to fire a manager who did not act decisively? Are you ready to call police, which may call further attention to this issue? Are you ready to reimburse customers? Or revoke a contract?
And are you, as the communications professional, prepared to offer a recommendation about what an organization should do – from an operations or customer service standpoint – to protect the reputation of your organization?
These lessons should prompt public relations professionals advising other corporations to stop and consider, if such incidents were to affect their companies, whether the companies are prepared to act as decisively. As recent history shows, U.S. corporations may be called upon to stand up for such principles in the future, and set a leadership example not only for other organizations, but also for the broader society.