Elections end in jubilation for the victors, despair for those who fall short.
Yet however passionate the emotions, it’s risky for a customer-facing business to take sides in political fisticuffs—even internally.
Grubhub, an online and mobile food ordering company, learned that lesson this week as it scrambled to contain the PR damage caused when its chief executive sent a companywide email that seemed to ask employees to resign if they supported President-elect Donald Trump.
As conservatives vowed to boycott Grubhub, CEO Matt Maloney followed up Thursday by stating that others had misconstrued a message of “inclusion and tolerance in the workplace.”
“I want to clarify that I did not ask for anyone to resign if they voted for Trump,” Maloney wrote. “I would never make such a demand.”
The original email rejected “the nationalist, anti-immigrant and hateful politics of Donald Trump” and called for “a culture of support and inclusiveness,” adding, “If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here.”
Despite the walk-back, the damage was done, and Grubhub was left to deal with a flood of negative publicity, and not just from conservative outlets such as Fox News. The Daily Beast headlined a piece, “GrubHub CEO: Resign if You Back Trump.” Forbes stated, “GrubHub CEO Attacks Trump, Tells Employees With ‘Hateful Attitudes’ To Resign.”
Follow-up stories about Maloney’s clarification did little to tamp down the flames. USA Today reported, “Grubhub CEO says Trump email ‘misconstrued.'”
Grubhub did not immediately respond to my email this morning, but it sought to get out the word on its stance on Twitter and its website. Still, several PR pros doubted that the walk-back was adequate.
Maloney’s mistake was twofold, says crisis management expert Larry Kamer of Kamer Consulting Group. First, it was unwise to wade into politics days after a contentious election without serious strategic consideration. Second, the follow-up post fell short.
“It’s clumsy, because he tries to say that he did not say exactly what he did say,” Kamer says.
Companies can wade into controversy—consider Starbucks’ “race together” campaign last year or Chick-fil-A’s support of traditional marriage—but such actions should be undertaken for strategic reasons, Kamer says.
“You’ve got to think twice before you say something that could alienate a chunk of 60 million people when you are [running] a consumer brand that basically wants everybody’s business,” he says. “They want Trump supporters; they want Clinton supporters.”
How to recover? Maybe a video campaign
Krista Norsworthy of the Seattle-based Outsidethinc Creative Arts Agency says what is required of Grubhub is “short and simple: a video campaign that takes direct responsibility for the mistake.”
Some saw the potential for political conflagrations months ago as the presidential primaries rolled out. Early this year, GroundFloor Media began cautioning customers to update their policies on political statements, says Gil Rudawsky, vice president at the Denver-based firm.
“Public comments, even from personal accounts, can be—and often are—misconstrued as being representative of their company’s views,” he says. “As a best practice, it is not appropriate for executives to make decidedly one-sided political comments or to push their views on employees.”
— Grubhub (@Grubhub) November 10, 2016
Twitter erupts, as Twitter does
Need we say it? Maloney’s statement stirred up a firestorm on Twitter. Actor James Woods, a conservative, noted the legal issues of taking sides.
Boss tells pro-Trump employees to resign /// Man, would I LOVE to be the attorney handling this class action lawsuit https://t.co/3CSuZ7P9zg
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) November 10, 2016
Others appreciated an executive’s willingness to go out on a limb for a cause. Tariq Nasheed—an author, producer and “anti-racism strategist”—praised Maloney.
So many good white ppl are silent about racism because brave ppl like Grubhub CEO #MattMaloney get scorned if they speak out against it
— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) November 11, 2016
Often overlooked in crisis management is how to apologize, Kamer says. “Most of the apologies that we see are pretty clumsy,” he says, “and they’re done with the same amount of thinking that a 6-year-old uses to get mom to stop yelling at them.”
As usual, there’s a simple way to avoid such conflagrations: Think twice.
Says Rudawsky: “We remind our clients that while free speech is right, just because you can make political mandates doesn’t mean you should.”