Goya And The Art Of The Brand Boycott

The consumer boycott is a time-honored tactic for those who seek to force political or social change. But do boycotts ever work?

Consider the recent backlash dished out to Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue after Unanue participated in a White House roundtable on economic and educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans. As he announced Goya’s involvement, Unanue praised president Trump’s leadership. He commented that the country was “truly blessed […] to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder.” Unanue went on to compare the president to his immigrant grandfather who had founded the company he now runs.

The reaction to Unanue’s words among many Hispanics was predictable and swift. Boldfaced names from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez to Lin-Manual Miranda tweeted in support of a boycott using hashtags #goyaway and #boycottgoya, with accompanying media coverage.

The Hispanic Federation released a statement criticizing Unanue’s comments in light of the president’s track record and rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants. To many boycotters, the CEO’s words were simply at odds with the values and well being of its core customers.

When a boycott sparks a buycott

Yet, just as quickly, Goya’s proponents pushed back with a grassroots tactic of their own. Many tweeted urging a #buycott of its products, with one notable GoFundMe raising over $300,000 to buy Goya foods for donation to the needy. The president’s daughter famously got into the fray, and just like that, black beans become a political statement.

One irony of the situation was that Unanue was at the White House to announce Goya’s donation of a million cans of chickpeas and another million pounds of goods to food banks – a part of its admirable history of charitable contributions that was lost in the sauce of mutual recrimination.

Goya was clearly unprepared for the fuss, as its handling of a friendly phone interview with The Wall Street Journal showed.

Through all of this, I can sense the PR woman fret, and I hear a scolding administered to Mr. Unanue in the background. The communications team’s risk-aversion becomes even more evident after the interview is over, when Mr. Trump and his daughter Ivanka tweet photos of themselves posing with Goya products. I email Mr. Unanue on Thursday asking for comment on the endorsement, and he responds with an expression of gratitude to the first family.

An hour later I receive an email from a different PR woman: “We’d like to retract and edit that quote immediately. Please see below for the approved quote.” The approved quote makes no mention of Donald or Ivanka Trump. Two more hours go by and I get yet another email from PR, retracting the reworked quote altogether.

Never say those PR reps don’t earn their salaries.

Brand boycotts rarely succeed

So, who’s winning the PR war here? Between the pro-boycott noise and the #buycott clapback, the Goya situation may be a draw. The fact is that most boycotts fizzle. And experts say they don’t usually harm the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted. Barely a quarter of them result in desired change.

Yet the goal of a boycott should be in the media coverage and brand reputation harm (or benefit) it generates. A study by Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King shows that. A successful boycott isn’t about lost sales or financial pressure. It’s about negative media headlines that persist. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King.

A clash with brand values can stick

In my view, the bad PR is effective when it runs counter to a corporation’s character or values. After Stephen Ross, majority owner of Equinox and SoulCycle, hosted a Trump fundraiser last summer, both brands were targets of a celebrity-led boycott. A data analytics company that tracked SoulCycle signups concluded that its business slumped in the weeks following the controversy.

What made the difference? Brand image, for one. As “lifestyle” brands with large LGBT followings, Equinox and SoulCycle count on being status symbols – or at least they did in pre-COVID days. The brands also convey social responsibility commitment in their marketing, sponsoring progressive and LGBT events, so the fundraiser made them seem hypocritical at best.

By that logic, the Goya brand controversy will simmer on, because the food fight isn’t over. The Trump campaign has seized on the boycott as a proxy for the latest culture war, producing Spanish-language broadcast ads that highlight the “shameful smear campaign” against Goya in Florida.

It’s a canny move. If the president and his advocates can link the Goya controversy to cancel culture and intolerance among progressives, they can win. If, on the other hand, Goya’s critics align it with the administration’s anti-immigration policies and racist attitudes to paint the CEO as hypocritical or callous, they will have elevated the boycott above partisan politics.

As Americus Reed of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School writes, “If the boycott reflects a movement — rather than a moment — it can change the world around it.” Stay tuned.

Corporate Reputation And The Whistleblower Culture

As a PR person, I’ve always been fascinated by the complicated psychology of whistleblowing. Lately it seems particularly relevant. Tom Mueller, who interviewed over 200 corporate whistleblowers for his book Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, proclaims this “the age of the whistleblower.”

Look at Theranos – the health tech unicorn that crashed and burned just two years ago. Its implosion was in large part due to first-rate reporting by The Wall Street Journal‘s John Carreyrou, yet Carreyrou was originally tipped off to irregularities by a company insider. Just two months ago, luggage company Away grappled with reputation stumbles after employees shared internal messages that unpacked a punitive workplace culture.

But the most far-reaching recent example is that of Susan Fowler. Her new memoir, Whistleblower, recounts the events that drove her to document the harassment and toxicity she experienced in the now-legendary blog post about her “very, very strange year at Uber.”

So, what’s behind the whistleblowing trend, and what does it mean?

A mixed legacy

The best outcome from Fowler’s experience, and those who endured similar treatment, would be what Stephen Levy of Wired calls “the end of the high-performer defense.” In many companies, especially high-growth technology businesses, there have been different standards of behavior for certain employees. When Fowler originally complained to Uber’s HR department about inappropriate overtures from her manager, her experience was dismissed because the manager was, you guessed it, a “high performer.” Since the Fowler memo, Big Tech players like Uber and Google will think twice about excusing inexcusable behavior or implicitly rewarding it with rich exit packages even when the bad actors are let go.

Yet Fowler’s experience is a cautionary tale. Sure, she landed on the cover of Time and she’s now an opinion editor at The New York Times. Her memoir will be made into a movie. Things have worked out fine for her; in fact, a cynic might say she’s better off after what happened. But as she tells it, the consequences of her disclosure were scarier than anything most of us could imagine. She has been threatened, smeared, investigated, and shunned by people who know better. For an even uglier example, just look at the rancor toward the (officially) unnamed individual whose report ultimately triggered the impeachment of the president. There is no guarantee of protection for any whistleblower.

When culture is a barrier

Blowing the whistle sends a chill through an organization. What’s more, a strong corporate culture, rightly prized by high-growth organizations, can inhibit healthy disclosure of wrongdoing. Exposure of unethical activities can have bad repercussions for lots of employees, not just those directly involved. Rarely does a whistleblower story involve just one individual. There are those who actively participated as well as those who knew or should have known. Often there are employees who received complaints directly or who heard about them. Where does accountability begin and end? Then there are those responsible for risk-management processes that failed. Finally, there are negative consequences for employees who weren’t involved at all – from cocktail-party shame to staff layoffs.

The key, of course, is for senior managers to model ethical behavior, and to cultivate an environment of full transparency. That’s easier said than done.

A red flag about institutions

In an essay about the most famous whistleblower of all time, Edward Snowden, Jill Lepore reminds us that the prevalence of whistleblowing today isn’t a good sign. It’s a red flag. It means that systems are failing. It’s an “indictment of an entire system of accountability.” Lepore writes, “Businesses have regulations, compliance departments, and inspections. Whistle-blowing is necessary when these safeguards fail.”

So what can businesses do to protect themselves, and what can we do as a culture?

A striking commonality among whistleblowers is their persistence. According to the experts, most report problems or abuses to those in charge, and often repeatedly. They don’t usually turn to the press before exhausting other avenues.

Many companies launch investigations and, where warranted, negotiate compensation in exchange for an NDA signed by the injured party. But NDAs don’t solve the cultural problem, and lately, they don’t even ensure confidentiality. Stories about NDAs often leak, even when the details stay private. It’s not a good look – just ask WeWork or Bloomberg LP. Employers should be focused on proactive action to prevent unethical behavior in the workplace rather than taking a reactive approach that can backfire.

Like any other risk management tool, a whistleblower policy is only as good as its practice. It must send a message to stakeholders that the organization is committed to rooting out illegal or unethical behavior, and that retaliation will not be tolerated. In some cases, outsourcing is part of the answer. Anonymity helps, of course. If complainants can make reports anonymously to an outside firm, it allows for more objective reporting and the chance to correct wrongdoing without public exposure. The only cure for the epidemic of whistleblowing may be more of it.

Any crisis manager knows that it’s easier to prevent a reputation crisis than to clean it up after the fact. The same is true for a whistleblower policy. A business should encourage whistleblowing within its walls, because the consequences of not doing so will be far worse. The internal and external mantra needs to be: If you see something, say something.

Can PR Take Ownership Of Reputation?

In business as in life, reputation is everything.

Few corporate CEOs will deny that a company’s reputation colors every aspect of business, including marketing, talent recruitment, employee relations, shareholder relations, and even customer experience.

In fact, the 2017 U.S. Reputation Dividend Report calls reputation a “cornerstone of corporate value” and quantifies the dividend that corporations with a five-star rep enjoy. The report calculates that in 2017, $1 out every $5 in market capitalization came from “confidence underpinned by company’s reputation” among those in the S&P 500. And reputation’s value seems to grow as a company scales.

Reputation accounts for 20% of the average company’s value, yet the highest-ranked corporations derive far more value from reputation. Those in the top spots, like the Walt Disney Corporation and Johnson & Johnson, can claim that over 50% of their market cap comes from reputation. That’s real money.

How PR and reputation intersect

Reputation’s soaring value is good news for PR and corporate communications professionals. Yet, even though reputation management is prized, it’s not always well understood. It’s often confused with crisis management, but while the two overlap, they are distinct.

Crisis management involves responding to a simmering or sudden event that negatively impacts reputation. Case in point: the 2017 United Airlines fiasco in which a passenger was violently removed from his seat. According to research by B2B research platform Clutch.co, the PR storm actually made some fliers feel less safe. Even seven months later, some 30% of consumers said they would not fly on United. The airline’s slow response and initially poor crisis management compounded the damage, though its share price did rebound.

What’s in the CCO’s purview?

Reputation management, on the other hand, is more proactive than the firefighting that characterizes crisis management. It can help an organization weather a crisis situation because a well-earned reputation is like money in the bank. This should mean that the internal stewardship of reputation falls to the chief communications officer. Yet reputation management isn’t always in the CCO’s purview, at least not solely. Risk management, compliance, legal counsel, brand marketing – all may have some ownership when it comes to corporate reputation. But in most organizations PR and reputation management work together, or at least they should. For that collaboration to succeed, the role of PR and the skills involved may need to evolve.

Understanding of audiences is key

The connection between communications and reputation management means that PR officers need to adopt new skills and even functions. One is a greater grasp of research. Not all PR people have a sophisticated understanding of market research. Some think of it as a tool for measuring ROI, but it can uncover valuable insights about stakeholder and public perception. It’s impossible to monitor and measure reputation without that baseline intelligence.

Reputation management is risk management

We deal in perception, which is an intangible asset. PR people tend to be comfortable with intangible and hard-to-measure attributes. Yet those trained in communications may lack the grasp of organizational risk and compliance issues faced by many companies. More importantly, a CCO rarely has oversight responsibility in that area.

C-level access is critical

Access to senior management is all-important here. The good news for corporate communicators is that the function has been elevated in the past few years. According to a study by the Arthur Page Society, as the communications role has become more crucial and more complex, CEOs place greater value on the CCO role. The Page report, which is based on data from interviews with 31 CEOs at companies earning more than $2 billion in revenue, suggests that CEOs have expanded expectations the role of the chief communications executive. Yet only 39% of CCOs report in to the CEO.

Can the CCO speak truth to power – and make it stick?

For chief communications officers to grow into the reputation management role, they need the attention and respect of the CEO. Most importantly, an effective reputation management officer must have the authority and the courage to tell senior officers what they may not want to hear. They must be perceptive in flagging risks and persuasive in offering advice and urging change. Not every communications officer has that blend of skill, influence, and authority. But those who do will be an invaluable asset to any organization.

Why Most Boycotts Fail But Others Win

When is a boycott more than just PR? What makes it work?

Recent reports of a slowdown in SoulCycle’s business made me wonder about the staying power of customer boycotts. Why do most fade while others gain traction and even force change? If you missed it, famous SoulCycle fans were outraged when billionaire Stephen Ross, who owns both SoulCycle and Equinox, among other companies, hosted a high-dollar Hamptons fundraiser for Donald Trump on August 8th.

Led by Chrissy Teigen and other celebrities, Twitter erupted against the brands. Rival fitness companies lunged at the chance to pummel them. Crunch Gym launched a Summer Break-Up promotion, and some less luxe gyms ran snarky ads tweaking their tony, Instagram-ready image.

Like most brand-watchers, I expected the boycott to fizzle like a summer fling, but I was wrong, apparently. Data analytics company Earnest Research accessed SoulCycle’s August signups and compared them with those of a year ago. Even adjusted for a seasonal dip, SoulCycle showed a marked slump in class attendance. Average enrollment dropped a whopping 12.8 percent across all U.S. locations, compared with a “normal” five percent dip in August in a typical year. That’s unusual.

Why Most Consumer Boycotts Fail

Well-organized corporate activism, like the 2017 campaign to pull sports and business events from North Carolina after its “bathroom bill,” can be very powerful. Backed by the NCAA and high-spending corporations, the bathroom bill boycott hit the state in its wallet, and it worked. But consumer boycotts are a dime a dozen today. Experts say most don’t hurt the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted, and barely a quarter of boycotts result in desired change.

So, what makes the difference? Why is SoulCycle feeling the burn? It may be because it and Equinox are lifestyle brands. SoulCycle adherents in particular enjoy strong social bonds and bragging rights that were dampened by the Ross fundraiser coverage. Who wants to Instagram their workout now? Most importantly, both SoulCycle and Equinox convey their social responsibility in their marketing, with sponsorships and positioning that embrace diversity and LGBTQ rights. So, the behavior of their corporate owner can seem flabby and hypocritical to members.

That’s the risk, and the irony, of corporate social responsibility. If a brand spends to build a reputation as a social advocate, it stands to lose more than if it had never invested. According to Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King, who studied activist targeting of major companies, “Building a strong reputation as a socially responsible firm creates certain expectations, making incongruent behavior more noticeable and damaging to the firm’s image.” That’s logical, and it’s why some brands approach any kind of advocacy with caution.

The study also shows that the key to a successful boycott – if success is defined as desired change – isn’t financial pressure. It’s – wait for it – negative media headlines. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King. The bad PR is typically most effective when it targets a high-profile company, because reputation damage is perceived as notably harmful over the long term.

The SoulCycle and Equinox boycotts may run out of steam as time passes. Yet the short-term success offers a lesson about social activism and PR. It’s about making it a story, and refreshing that story when the initial news cycle is over.  To succeed, a social action must be orchestrated to create press coverage and social media noise above all. For major brands, reputation damage may be more important and more effective even than damage to the bottom line.

"Stakeholder Value" Is Good PR — And Good Business

The recent move by the Business Roundtable to redefine corporate priorities by emphasizing value beyond shareholder profits is the latest indicator that corporate reputation’s importance is on the rise. The statement supporting “stakeholder value” is also a good sign for public relations professionals who preach corporate responsibility or even strategic activism in U.S. corporate boardrooms. We specialize in messaging to those very stakeholders, especially employees, partners, and customers.

Nearly 200 major CEOs signed on to invest in employees and serve customers as well as deliver for shareholders. The pledge has been embraced by big-brand Business Roundtable members from Apple to JPMorgan Chase.

Some observers take issue with the statement as wrongheaded, seeing it as de-prioritizing every for-profit company’s fiduciary obligation. The Council for Institutional Investors immediately issued a statement in response, expressing “respectful” disagreement, while reinforcing that shareholder value should remain paramount as a corporate goal.

Others have called the statement window-dressing — a gimmick to manage corporate reputation during a time of increasing concern about income inequality, hair-trigger boycotts and cultural polarization. And it’s true that the commitment itself has no teeth. Metrics, incentives, and benchmarks for progress are conspicuously absent from the pledge.

Yet, the Business Roundtable statement didn’t happen in isolation. It comes a year and a half after Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, the largest investor in the world, issued marching orders to top business leaders, urging them to deliver not just financial performance, but “a positive contribution to society.”  The New York Times calls CEO activism “the new normal, noting its rise over the past several years.

Could this mean a sea change in corporate governance? Shareholder value will always reign supreme, but increasingly, corporate leaders are linking it to stakeholder value. The 2018 tax cut and fat corporate profits are a factor, along with the spotlight it placed on rich CEO pay packages. And as we approach full employment, talent recruitment and employee retention have become business imperatives. Millennials in particular pay attention to corporate brand values, both as customers and as a part of the workforce.

The power of social media makes corporate reputation vulnerable to rumor and criticism (whether legitimate or not), and customers expect a level of engagement and participation from brands. And let’s face it, the chaos and controversy courted by this administration may also be a factor in the trend. The public is looking to the private sector for consistent leadership, positive social impact, and stability.

Is the Business Roundtable statement about PR? Sure. But the concerns that drove it aren’t likely to go away, and once corporations put their name to a pledge, they will be held accountable by stakeholders. The “PR move” isn’t just a shallow one; it’s an opportunity for corporate America to engage with audiences who, despite their skepticism, are looking for more from our institutions. For corporate leaders, the stakeholders will only grow more important and the stakes will only get higher.

How To Restore A Public Reputation

When the college admissions cheating and bribery scandal broke nearly a month ago, two names led the headlines. More than 50 people were implicated, but actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were featured in every article. Both actors’ spouses were mentioned, and as a social influencer, Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade was also drawn into the coverage. But the two women were the faces of the scandal. It’s the price of fame; boldface names draw clicks.

Now, each woman is faced with a classic PR problem. Can they win back their reputation? If so, how?

Any expert will tell you that coming back from a public disgrace is a long haul. So far, only one – Huffman – has taken the first public steps toward recovery. Here’s the advice I’d give to her and her fellow defendants.

First, nail down the legal strategy

For a public person charged with a crime, the smartest legal strategy may be in conflict with the best public relations advice. PR people don’t like it when legal counsel wins at the expense of public image. But it happens, as when a public company CEO can’t admit wrongdoing due to liability concerns, despite knowing that a mealy-mouthed statement or “no comment” comment may prolong the damage. Happily for Huffman, in her case the legal and communications strategies are in sync. She swiftly chose to plead guilty and was free to move on to the next step – taking responsibility for her actions.

(In contrast, Lori Loughlin has thus far refused a plea deal, and at her court appearance she was all smiles, signing autographs for fans. Yesterday she and husband Mossimo Giannulli were slapped with more charges, so the stakes for them are higher, and the outlook for PR rehab is poor.)

Face the reality

This step is harder than it looks, and not just due to potential liability. Celebrities – even top business leaders among them – often live in a bubble. They’re surrounded by people whose livelihoods depend on pleasing them, and over time their judgment can become distorted. Many are tied to an infrastructure of agents, talent management, PRs, and support staff, and it’s difficult to upset the balance. While facing the music is often their only chance to preserve the career machine, it often feels counterintuitive, and it’s tempting to hide behind third parties.


Do it sincerely and do it well. That’s exactly what Felicity Huffman did in a statement released yesterday. A poor or inadequate apology can make the situation far worse, but as such statements go, Huffman’s is pretty good. In fact, it’s worth breaking down what works.

Take responsibility

Huffman gets several things right in her messaging. First, she admits and accepts responsibility for what she did, a key precursor to an effective mea culpa. Importantly, she makes no excuses. This is where many public apologies go wrong; we’re all familiar with celebrities who blame substance abuse, emotional issues, or a bad childhood. Instead, Huffman expresses deep remorse for her actions, admitting, “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.”

Acknowledge the harm

Another helpful aspect of the statement is its acknowledgement of others. A good apology and effective PR message shouldn’t be about you, the public personality whose life has been fractured, even though it may be natural to feel that way.

Finally, Huffman apologizes to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

That last part is key, because it hits on why the scandal infuriated so many people. The phony admissions schemes were shocking examples of how advantaged people cheat and game the system to gain even more advantage, and ordinary families were naturally outraged by it. Huffman did well to acknowledge that.

Make things right

It may sound paradoxical, but from a reputation point of view, Huffman should hope that she spends time in jail. She can’t fix what’s broken about the college admissions process, but she can pay for her crime. A reasonable penalty that includes a prison sentence will ultimately help restore her image because it will appeal to our sense of justice.  It worked for Martha Stuart, although in my view Stewart’s crime was less egregious. Of course it won’t hurt if either Huffman or Loughlin spend time doing legitimate volunteer work or donating to a worthy cause. But those steps come later.

Use media wisely

If I were advising Huffman I’d probably tell her to lie low until after her sentencing and (probably inevitable) incarceration. Repairing one’s reputation doesn’t have to involve media, and in many cases it’s better to avoid it, lest you appear to be capitalizing on the situation. For a professional actor, however, an eventual media sit-down is inevitable. When the time comes, Huffman should conduct an exclusive interview with a friendly media outlet as a way of sharing her story and completing the redemption journey. It should be honest, unvarnished, and heartfelt.

It’s a long road back, and in Huffman’s case, the admissions scandal will be in the first line of her obituary. But the cliché is true; while the media mob is a beast, especially amplified by social platforms, the American public is essentially forgiving. With the right reputation rehab and some time for people to forgive her, Felicity Huffman has a chance to return to a time when her biggest problem was which dress to wear on the red carpet.

Has Apple Lost Its Magic?

In its business and its PR, Apple has had a golden touch. For a decade sales have climbed along with profits, and its reputation for innovation has flourished. Until recently, that is.

iPhone sales started slowing several years ago, but no one seemed to mind or even notice much because prices kept going up. The profits were still rolling in.

But 2019 has been a rough year so far for the world’s most valuable brand. In January it slashed its earnings forecast, erasing $446 billion in shareholder value.

In consumer technology, it’s the norm for sales to slow and profits to erode over time. In fact, 10 years is an amazing run in a category where change is rapid and commoditization pretty much inevitable. The antidote to the latter, of course, is innovation. It’s the lifeblood of all tech companies, and Apple has mastered it as well as any. When it lacked a truly innovative product, it made up for it with a truly innovative user experience.

That’s why it was a shock last week when Apple pulled the plug (no pun intended) on its highly anticipated AirPower wireless charging pad. Air Power was meant to charge the iPhone, Air Pods and the Apple Watch all at once, without the ugly nest of wires and charging cables. The statement from Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering, was succinct.

“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward.”

Apple-watchers noted that the decision was apparently sudden, because retail packaging for the second-generation AirPods feature an AirPower image. It’s almost unthinkable that the company would pull it. The charging pad was originally announced in September 2017 and scheduled for sale last year. And though it’s hardly as crucial as an iPhone or other flagship product, it’s a rare stumble and a disturbing sign that the luster is wearing off.

To compound matters, Apple started 2019 with another type of stumble – in data privacy. Privacy is an area where it has worked hard to build a reputation as a consumer champion while Facebook suffers one scandal after another over its handling of user data. At a privacy conference last year CEO Tim Cook called for an end to the technology industry’s collection and sale of user data, using a policy proposal to differentiate Apple at a time when Silicon Valley is under regulatory and public pressure. (Never mind that Apple was forced to shut down its FaceTime server due to an application bug that let callers to listen in on people with certain iOS devices. Luckily for Apple, everyone was distracted by the Facebook privacy scandal du jour, so it was a one-day story.)

Apple has never much cared about being first, only about being the best. Its genius is to command user loyalty by out-engineering and out-designing the competition, and by offering something we didn’t even know we needed. So, a delay isn’t a big deal, but a retreat is a different story. Apple may see its future as digital entertainment, but, let’s face it, it isn’t yet equipped to battle it out with Netflix and Amazon. Its brand and business identity for the foreseeable future is in elegant, innovative products and big ideas that anticipate or even shape how we use the internet.

Yet as embarrassing as it is, scrapping the AirPower was the right choice, presuming serious quality issues. If Tim Cook had given in to pressure to move ahead with the introduction, Apple would have risked introducing a less-than-stellar product, and that could damage its reputation far more than an aborted launch.

In the words of one tech blog, “it’s a rare case where their ambitions publicly exceed their otherwise impressive engineering capabilities.” But the stakes are now high, and the coming months will be a business and communications test for Apple. Will it be seen as an innovator, or simply a maker of pricey iPhones?

#MeToo Slams Under Armour: Can It Recover?

The #metoo movement has claimed the reputations of many high-profile men. But its real impact may be at the corporate level. Our heightened awareness – and the corporate reluctance to address systemic misbehavior – presents serious public relations challenges for established companies in every sector. No brand is immune from a reckoning with the consequences of inattention to sexual harassment and inequality in the workplace.

Take onetime media darling Under Armour. The brand enjoyed huge early success, in part due to the  real-life story of founder Kevin Plank. A former football team captain, Plank developed the line based on moisture-wicking technology that was later adopted by NFL teams and featured in hit movies. The company expanded aggressively, and with its growth came inevitable setbacks. The past two years have been particularly rough, and its fumbles show how hard it can be to salvage a reputation when faced with simultaneous business challenges.

The reputation issues started with Plank’s public praise of President Trump as a “pro-business leader” last year. The comment didn’t sit well with some of the brand’s star athletes like Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland, and customers threatened a boycott. Plank was forced to explain himself in a full-page ad in hometown paper Baltimore Sun. He later resigned from the president’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative Council and joined other business leaders in condemning Trump’s equivocal comments after events in Charlottesville – which prompted threats from Trump supporters. Things eventually calmed down, although the business environment didn’t improve much.

Business suffered as some of its large retail customers struggled, and the brand lost cachet among the all-important teen segment. Earlier this year Under Armour announced a restructuring meant to streamline its business and refocus on women’s apparel, among other areas. Yet just as its recovery started to gain traction,it was hit with serious criticisms of workplace behavior and culture born out of #metoo.

A scathing story in The Wall Street Journal recounted how female employees were subjected to sexual harassment and “inappropriate conduct” in the workplace. Under Armour covered expenses for employee entertainment at strip club, and the piece describes an annual outing at Plank’s home where young female employees were invited based on their attractiveness.

To its credit, the company responded quickly in the wake of the Journal story. Plank’s statement referred to “systemic inequality in the global workplace” and pledged to “accelerate the ongoing meaningful cultural transformation that is already under way at Under Armour.” Although the statement doesn’t actually accept responsibility for misbehavior, it does promise to do better.

Yet the Under Armour example shows how, when a company is already weakened, a reputation shakeup can do more damage than it otherwise would, precipitating customer disenchantment and defections of talent. By contrast, Nike announced a raft of departures by highly placed male officers after scores of female executives complained of systemic harassment, unfair treatment, and retaliation when they brought their concerns to HR officers. But the $112 billion Nike may be better equipped to withstand setbacks, and it has moved swiftly to install women in senior leadership positions.

The formula to protect reputation in the #metoo era is both simple and very, very difficult.

Root out the bad actors

This is an obvious first step, though it can be easier said than done when the harassers are considered top performers, or if they have a close relationship to the CEO. One of Under Armour’s earliest employees was Scott Plank, Kevin Plank’s brother, who rose to EVP for Business Development but retired quietly in 2012 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Many other positions were held by friends of the founder, and, not surprisingly, it had a corrosive effect on the culture.

Make sure women are in positions of influence

Workplace studies show that harassment is more common where men outnumber women and where the supervisor ranks are mostly male. Research by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that sexual harassment at work is more likely to be reported at organizations with women in senior leadership (by 56% vs 39%). Under Armour’s only C-level female was the HR chief, and she recently left the company to accept another position. Over the past year the company also lost its female SVPs for global retail and global brand management. If those aren’t flashing red lights, I don’t know what is.

Establish a rigorous protocol for complaints

Too many corporations limit their role to refreshing the corporate sexual harassment policy or stepping up worksite sessions on the topic. They may talk the talk, but when a sensitive complaint surfaces, the impulse is to cover it up. Worse, the corporation may stigmatize the person who brought the complaint, sometimes unwittingly. To protect its reputation a corporation cannot afford to ignore systemic power imbalances, unresolved complaints, or episodic misconduct.

The heart of reputation, of course, is corporate culture. David Ballard, Assistant Executive Director of Organizational Excellence at the APA sums it up. “All the training, policies and punishments won’t have an impact on harassment if you don’t address power differentials, pay equity and gender equality in organizations,” he notes. Like most workplace problems, the #metoo affliction is easier and less painful to prevent than it is to treat. An organization that cultivates diversity, openness, and ethical behavior is in far better shape to handle unforced errors of any kind, especially today.

PR For The "New" Technology CEO

For CEOs of technology companies, arrogance is out and humility is in. “Boring is the new black,” proclaims New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in a piece about the latest trend for technology company chiefs. Whereas they once reveled in being colorful, brash, and outspoken, today’s leaders have quieted down a bit. The trend has implications for traditional tech company PR campaigns that focus on the top guy.

I don’t concur with every example Manjoo cites (since when was Bill Gates considered charismatic?), but there’s no doubt things have changed for Silicon Valley. Once held up as the embodiment of American innovation, Big Tech is now seen as partly responsible for many of society’s problems — from income inequality to the erosion of personal privacy. Media attitudes have hardened, too.  Most journalists aren’t fan boys waiting breathlessly for the next gadget launch; they’re just as apt to be tough on company leaders, or to pounce on bad news.

With its changing reputation comes a new caution in CEO conduct. Being outrageous, or even quirky, is risky. And since the #metoo movement, many high-level male executives in the Valley are running scared. They have a good reason. Sixteen months ago, Travis Kalanick was the freewheeling, bad-boy CEO of Uber and Susan Fowler, who spent “one very very strange year” there, was an unknown software engineer who quietly departed after unrelenting sexual harassment and discrimination. Today, Kalanick is out of the company he founded and Fowler has been brought on by the New York Times as opinion editor. My, how things turn.

So how is a technology leader to stand out as the face of a company? Most tech companies, among others, want to steer away from the “cult of personality” approach, understandably. Yet the C-level role is more critical than ever.

The good news is that CEO “thought leadership” is easier to achieve in periods of rapid social and technology change. And during divisive times, people are hungry for real insights. In fact, now may be an opportune time to take a new approach to personal branding for corporate leaders. But the key isn’t really to play it safe or to be boring.

How should a CEO convey leadership?

Leaders talk about ideas

Is there anything more powerful than an exciting idea that hasn’t been realized? I was reminded of this recently when someone tweeted a portion of President John F. Kennedy’s “moon speech” — “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a rallying cry for the entire country and served as a metaphor for American ingenuity, competitiveness, and idealism.

Focus on the future 

Looking forward is the key to staying relevant, and when it comes to technology businesses in particular, all eyes look to the future. Forecasts, preparation, and anticipation of changes to come should be a staple of every technology CEO’s public script. The future is exciting, especially if we’re prepared for it.

Master the message

Sometimes a trend is happening in front of us, but we don’t realize it, or it hasn’t been identified. The leader who captures it can take the credit.  Malcolm Gladwell had some striking observations about how ideas spread, but it was only after he packaged his thoughts under a label borrowed from epidemiology that “the tipping point” was born.

Zig when others zag

Who doesn’t love a contrarian? PR and corporate comms people have known this for years. If a C-level executive has views or ideas that are legitimately against the grain, they will clearly help differentiate his brand and that of the organization.

Be hopeful

We may be in a buoyant economic time now, but in many sectors the environment is divisive and uncertain rather than optimistic. We’re starved for hope, and a business leader who can inspire with solutions and confident expectation will exert far greater influence than the CEO who simply diagnoses our ills.


What could be more obvious, right? But involvement outside of one’s own category is what separates a strong company captain from a great leader. Look at Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for example. Benioff remains a larger-than-life character, but he has made social change and climate action a key goal for Salesforce. He called for the Silicon Valley community to address inequality and homelessness in San Francisco and backed it with millions in donated funds. Along with others, Benioff has committed to helping take on global climate change through the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.

That’s the kind of inspiring leadership that CEOs don’t need to be quiet about.