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Danger in personalizing an organization?

A couple of days ago, Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times wrote an article about how trendy it’s become to hate BP and CEO Tony Hayward. She was on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday to talk about the article.

The parallel she brought up, and that many others have brought up in covering BP, is to the Bhopal disaster involving Union Carbide. That disaster was much worse and caused a greater loss of life, but inflicted
less financial penalty on Union Carbide and drew much less hatred toward the organization and its leaders.

Kellaway brings up four reasons that modern society is so much more interested in hating corporations/organizations now than in the past: the hangover from the credit disaster, the growth of the Internet and social media, anger over executive pay and the personification of corporations/organizations.

The fourth reason — the personification of corporations/organizations — is interesting to me as a public relations practitioner. Kellaway says that corporations have gone out of their way to include their values in their marketing as a way to seem more human. Many corps/orgs have used social media to do this also. CEO’s are blogging, companies have Twitter accounts, you can become their fan on Facebook, etc.

Kellaway says in her NPR interview that this is dangerous. While personifying your organization can help get you loved when things are going well, it also makes it easier for people to turn on you when things go bad.

She says: “The companies think if we give these people a human dimension — and not only to them as individuals, but if we make our whole companies cuddly and human with their values, people will love us more.
Well, love and hate are sort of the same thing, in the end. And the flip side is that when things go wrong, then people turn against both the CEO and the company in a far more emotional way than they used to.
And in the end, that’s the company’s fault.”

But wouldn’t avoidance of that risk be counter to the goals of effective public relations? Couldn’t we say that we are being more open by being in social media and having our leaders communicating directly with stakeholders? Aren’t these tools strengthening the relationships between organizations and stakeholders?

In my organization, we’re using video to personify our project. Videos that feature our workers are a great community relations tool — they show that our project isn’t just reaching out to the community, but it’s
actually part of the community. Our project isn’t just an organization, it’s a group of people — people who drive the same roads as you, shop at the same stores as you and have kids on your kid’s baseball team. I think it creates a bond.

Now, granted, Tony Hayward is not an ironworker in Richmond, Ky., which probably makes him easier to hate, but what do you think? Are organizations running a risk by personifying themselves? Would government organizations be affected differently than commercial organizations?

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Chris Higginbotham

Thanks, Harlan. I guess we could wonder what kind of reaction there would be if Bhopal happened today. Would the fact that it’s in a developing country make a difference?

Even though he wasn’t active in being a personal face of FEMA, Mike Brown became pretty widely reviled during the Hurricane Katrina debacle, so maybe hatred of leaders has just become inevitable when things go wrong.

As far as Exxon and Toyota go, I think that might have something to do with how fickle people are. I’m not an expert in the financial implications their disasters had on their respective bottom lines, but it definitely became cool to hate those organizations for a while. Then people just seemed to forget.

Dannielle Blumenthal

From a branding perspective (and I know that peple love to hate brands and branding these days but I remain convinced of its importance to effective communication, done properly) I would say that personifying the organization remains critical. The issue is how to do that in a way that balances risk and reward.

In general, the greatest return on person-branding comes when you can find a single individual to take the baton and run with it and capture the public’s imagination. Take your pick of political and celebrity figures and you’ll find lots of examples. This can be an effective strategy if the organization can handle some controversy (no leader is perfect and great brands inherently generate controversy) and if the leader has near total control of the brand (because if they don’t, the mismatch will cause things to fall apart.)

However this also brings with it an enormous amount of risk because once you put yourself out there, you are bound to screw up at some point, and if you don’t handle it right the public is going to eagerly trash you just as fast as they put you up in the limelight to be worshiped (that is, unless you have a huge reserve of public trust – but even then…).

A safer bet, but one which also has its risks, is to personify the brand through the frontline employees of the organization. There, you are dispersing the risk among many people, so that even if there are a few bad apples, the rest of the basket can carry the day. Also, people inherently trust brand representatives who are inside the organization AND lower on the food chain because they seem “more like us” and have less to lose if there is a problem to report.

The dispersal-among-the-frontline strategy can work especially well if the brand has a strong culture and the employees are genuine about it. However, it doesn’t work so well if the organization is suffering from internal cultural issues that prevent unity. Also, there has to be a great tolerance in the organization for dissent so that the branding effort doesn’t come off as the “attack of the robots”.

My own reaction to the BP PR effort was positive to the CEO from the start (see previous blog here). It was negative to the commercials featuring the “actual employee”. I felt like they were exploiting him, which is worse than a high level executive making himself accountable to the public. But I can see arguments either way.

Christopher Parente

Really interesting post and comments. I heard the NPR piece and it made me go Hmmm… maybe b/c I’m old enough to remember Bhopal well. Lots of good points that go in many directions.

A few thoughts:

1. There was no pervasive Internet during the time of Bhopal, so you can’t really compare the backlash then to BP, not apples and oranges
2. Dannielle is right about the rewards of everyone representing the brand, but that’s almost impossible for gov’t to do, and damn difficult for any org. Zappos is widely credited for making it work.
3. Really interesting to me that while big corporations may be “hated” more now than in the past, in other ways — taxation, regulation — they’re freer to do what they want than in the past.

Chris Higginbotham

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

The cool thing about blogging is that you don’t really have to come to a conclusion; the value of simply putting up a question seems more important. That said, I think that the potential reward of personalizing your organization outweighs the risk. It’s all about credibility in my opinion and putting your leadership out there helps establish credibility. Now, if something goes wrong, you own up to it. That’s what strategic crisis communication theory calls for. You express empathy, apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat.Importantly, you also have to let people know you’re working to prevent a repeat. I think Danielle is right that BP did those things. They have said from the start that it was a mistake, they’ve apologized, they’re investigating it and they’ve promised to make things right regardless of the financial cost.

The two problems are that 1) BP isn’t delivering on their promise (and if they have, they aren’t effectively communicating it, which is just as bad) and 2) the peripheral statements Hayward has made about wanting his life back, etc. have damaged the official stance of the organization.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

Interesting… the personification of companies… I never thought about it before, but it seems that a lot of these public relations campaigns are so corporations appear to be more than just greedy, bottom-line entities. If they can show the values of the organization and how they are positively impacting communities and the people in them who are like me or are participating in the same activities or have the same interests, then they will have improved the public perception of the company, its products/services, and career opportunities. I’m not sure the disapproval is worse in our modern society, just louder. I would add that another factor in this is the explosion of cable television; there’s so much more coverage of any event now.

Barb Chamberlain

Does anyone really find any corporate brand all that cuddly and human, no matter what they do with a CEO blog?

I’d attribute far more of the backlash and the change in proportional response to BP vs. Union Carbide to the rise of the Internet and the many related tools that enable creative coverage and discussion.

The graphic that lets you overlay the oil spill spread on your hometown, for example, really brings it home–and it’s available to you whenever you feel like looking at it, not just when CBS Nightly News wants to show you an image or two and then move on to the next story at their pace, not yours.

The Fast Company interview with Scott Monty speaks directly to the value they see in having real people interact and give that 360-degree human face: http://bit.ly/b7DXX9

I agree with Harlan that–and this is pretty awful to have to point out–Union Carbide happened in Bhopal, India. The BP oil spill took place in the U.S. Which location do you think will anger U.S. citizens more? We didn’t know those people in India (although today we could, thanks to the Internet). We may have friends and family in the Gulf. This happens time and again with disasters.

I think the biggest risk of being open and human in corporate communications is the tendency to retreat to the old way when under fire. If they go back to command and control and engage in communications via press release rather than ongoing dialogue, that’s when we turn on them.