Uber, Sony crises emphasize PR’s role in defining values

An organization’s response to an emergency—internal or external—will show its core character. What’s in your company’s DNA?

A brand’s reputation can rise or fall based on how its managers respond to unplanned events.

Having a crisis plan in place is a good start, but it’s not enough. The right response has to be part of the organization’s character, part of its DNA.

Two companies have hurt themselves and eroded their own reputations with woefully tone-deaf responses to events. As these cases are analyzed in the weeks to come, crisis planning will undoubtedly be invoked. In both cases, though, all the planning in the world wouldn’t have stopped these businesses—Uber and Sony—from responding based on their respective core natures.

When an unbalanced gunman with a long history with local police took hostages in a Sydney cafe, Uber could have taken some steps toward rebuilding its already-sullied reputation by offering free rides to people who needed to get out of areas being evacuated. Instead, the ride-sharing service implemented its controversial surge pricing, charging four times normal fares.

Facing predictable backlash, the company at first defended the quadrupled rates, claiming it was the way to motivate drivers to show up during the crisis. The outrage only grew, however, and the company finally backed off and started giving away the free rides it should have offered in the first place.

The free rides Uber eventually made available won’t produce the kind of good will people might have felt if those freebies had been part of the company’s initial response. Instead, they will be viewed only as doing the right thing when pressured into it, only slightly better than the outcome would have been if Uber had dug in its heels and stood by its higher prices during the emergency.

Sony gets hacked

Sony’s latest reaction to the massive leak of internal documents and digital assets was a letter from high-profile attorney David Boies on the company’s behalf, threatening media companies (including CNN, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Re/code) if they published any content they receive from the leaked data. Boies asked news organizations to destroy anything they obtained, but he also said that if they “used or disseminated” the materials, Sony “will have no choice but to hold you responsible.”

The threat probably doesn’t have editors or publishers quaking in their shoes, given that most legal experts don’t believe Sony can make a case against them. The Wall Street Journal cites Bartnicki v. Vopper, a 2001 Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of a news outlet that had broadcast an illegally recorded cell phone conversation. Because the radio station had nothing to do with the illegal activity, the First Amendment trumped privacy issues. Former Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”

Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallerstein acknowledged the moral quandary of publishing these materials in a message he published late last week. Noting that the material has genuine news value, Wallerstein added: “Every reporter has fantasized about stumbling upon a treasure trove of secret documents. So when a story such as Sony is spread in front of us in all its unprecedented scope, it’s instinctive for us to pounce. But this time around, acting on that reflex just doesn’t feel right, even though it isn’t wrong.”

Boies went ahead and wrote the letter anyway, which has been widely publicized and exacerbates the smell of fear emanating from Sony headquarters. The desperation evident in the letter could well be justified. Sony’s studio chief has an appointment to meet with civil rights leader Al Sharpton for some fence-mending in the wake of the revelation of an email exchange with serious racist overtones. The company has also brought in outside PR counsel to focus on the leak and its broader consequences.

PR’s role in establishing a company’s character

Back in 2012 at the World Public Relations Forum, the 800 delegates endorsed the Melbourne Mandate, which the Global Alliance describes as “a call to action of new areas of value for public relations and communications management.” The document asserts that PR and communications professionals have a mandate to define and maintain an organization’s character and values and to instill responsible behavior into individuals and organizations.

A communicative organization, the Mandate says, has a clear sense of its core, which consists of its values, leadership and culture. It’s easy to call each of those three strands into question in Uber’s and Sony’s respective cases.

What values guided Uber’s decision to profit from tragedy rather than demonstrate its commitment to the community in which it operates? How does threatening toothless legal action reflect leadership who should be modeling Sony’s true character and values (as opposed to the character and values evident in those racist emails)? How can anyone imagine that the “processes, structures, collective behavior and ways of working that are part of organization life” at Sony or Uber are cultures they would want to be part of?

Though there are plenty of lessons to learn from both instances, the one that would serve organizations best is to elevate PR or communications to whatever level is necessary for senior leadership to pay attention to its messages about the organization’s character. The best communication strategies in the world won’t change the outcomes if the organization’s core is inconsistent with the values of its customers.

In an era when corporate behavior drives purchase and investment decisions as much as value, ignoring this vital dimension of public relations will leave a diseased culture in place and lead to more crisis responses that the public will revile.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Topics: PR

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