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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When Leadership Flaws Become Brand Killers

I saw the BP ad featuring BP CEO Tony Hayward on TV Monday. I felt
angry after watching it, of course, how could I not given the scale of
the disaster and the discrepancy between the image being portrayed and
reality. On TV I saw images of blue water, white sand, and lots of
workers. On CNN I see endless murky waves of brown and tough questions
about cleanup crews who only seem to be hired for the TV cameras.

There was other stuff that bothered me too, and from a general-public
perspective I can understand why, as the Wall Street Journal reported
June 6, “the ad isn’t hitting the mark with consumers and crisis
experts.” But from the perspective of having someone personify the BP
brand, I thought Hayward did a pretty good job.

--He seemed honestly to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened.

--He seemed sorry.

--He seemed to take responsibility for paying for the cleanup.

--And though I wished for more of a sense of urgency in the message –
more emotion – I could also see that he might just be tired and worn
out from all of this.

In other words, I forgave him the “sin” of being a highly paid CEO who
is also human.

Notre Dame Professor James O’Rourke took the opposite view. He told
the Journal, “It’s very unfortunate that Tony Hayward is the face of
this crisis,” because he has publicly admitted that he “wanted his
life back.”

This is where things get interesting. To the professor, such
admissions undermine Hayward’s ability to lead, probably because they
make him seem insensitive. To me, they show transparency.

This isn’t really a blog about BP itself and what Hayward does or
doesn’t know, because the facts are still emerging. The question is,
assuming that Hayward did make those comments and is tired and even
possibly insensitive, does that make him too publicly flawed to lead?

We saw another example this week with former White House press
correspondent Helen Thomas. She was not an elected or appointed
leader, but she was a leader nonetheless because her audience (her
readers and the American public at large) saw her that way.

Certainly I looked up to her. For better or for worse, she represented
America, and equality for women in the workforce, when she talked. Who
hasn’t seen and admired her on TV, sitting in the front row of the
White House press corps, peppering Presidents with tough questions?
She was a feminist icon.

And with the image of the White House on her Facebook profile photo,
she clearly identified herself with the institution of the American
Presidency.

So it was tremendously painful, and shocking, when I saw the vicious
video on Sunday (taken by a rabbi outside a Jewish cultural event, no
less) where she, with deep hatred in her voice, told the rabbi that
Jews should “get the hell out” of Israel and go back to “Poland and
Germany,” which are obviously not our homelands but the countries
where 6 million of us were brutalized, tortured, and killed in the
Holocaust.

True, she is 89 and her advanced age probably led her to speak that
way. True, no matter how old she is she is entitled to her opinion,
even if it means that she hates me and my people. But the issue was
not Helen Thomas as a person. It was Helen Thomas as a brand
representative of the United States. That expression of personal
bigotry was inconsistent with our American values of tolerance,
diversity, and love of all people in this great melting pot. No matter
what religious, ethnic, cultural, racial, or other group she would
have spoken about that way, the impact was the same: people asking,
“Is this what the White House, however indirectly, stands for? Is this
what we put in the front row of the White House press corps? On the TV
cameras?”

And so although I forgive her in my heart and admire her for her
accomplishments, I felt it was my responsibility as a human being
(personal, not professional, as a citizen and as a Jew) to stand up
against what she had done, how she had sullied this country’s good
name.

And the White House press spokesperson called her comments “offensive
and reprehensible.”

She did retire, the next day.

All leaders are flawed, that much we know. And in the age of the
Internet and Twitter and Facebook, that is only going to become
clearer as the veil of privacy between personal and professional is
constantly pulled further back. I read yesterday in a review of a book
about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (also in the Wall Street
Journal) that he doesn’t even believe in that line.

So going forward the question for PR specialists is not going to be,
“How do we hide our leader’s flaws?”

Rather, it will be, “Are our leader’s flaws such brand killers that he
or she can’t lead us in the first place?”

Always assume that the truth, the real honest to G-d truth, will
always, always eventually come out. And so always ask, does that truth
support your brand, have a neutral impact on it, or kill it?

Posted via email from Think Brand First