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?