The social media era teaches many lessons which we fail to learn at our own peril. One of the most vexing of these is about controlling our own narratives as companies or brands—or, more specifically, how we don’t control them as much as we think.
Once upon a time, a company CEO or head could simply decide what they wanted their company’s message to be and hand it off to a marketing and public relations team to put it into practice. There were only a few channels through which that message could be broadcast—newsprint, TV, radio, and magazines—so it was much easier to exert control over what was being said, and where.
Today, it couldn’t be more different. The gatekeepers of media are gone, and anyone with an opinion can find a place to broadcast it far and wide. We are no longer able to control everything that is being said about our brand, and yet many companies are operating as if they do.
There has been a prominent example of this recently in the headlines: Uber. As one of the largest and most successful companies in Silicon Valley, you would think that Uber would have learned this lesson about controlling the narrative—especially since it came of age in the internet era. But time and time again, it seems to falter. The first fracas arose in the wake of Trump’s controversial travel ban. What was ultimately a communications gaffe—Uber tweeted to say they were still running despite the protests at JFK—turned into the viral #deleteUber hashtag when users interpreted the companies move as more or less an endorsement of Trump’s Muslim ban. Less than a week or so later, CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to remove himself from President Trump’s economic advisory council. He stated: “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”
The genesis of the #deleteUber hashtag is a lesson for us all: it doesn’t matter what your intentions were, once something takes off you no longer control the narrative and a trending scandal will always overshadow anything your communications and PR team does to combat it.
Unfortunately for Uber, the trouble didn’t stop there. Less than a month later, former employee Susan Fowler published a long post detailing the sexual abuse complaints she made at the company, and how the HR and managerial departments repeatedly refused to deal with them adequately. The scathing account when viral within hours. As one sharing economy blogger pointed out, the allegations were especially rock solid because “Fowler documented everything, wrote a dispassionate blog post, alleged nothing that occurred at a social event with alcohol, and came out against a company that a lot of people already hate.”
Nevertheless, Kalanick came out once again trying to combat the viral blog post with another narrative, calling the claims “abhorrent and against everything we believe in.” The problem, again, is that the narrative had already been established. The conduct of his employees detailed by Fowler made it clear that it wasn’t what his company stood for, as they repeatedly failed to respond to her claims, and that’s the narrative that won out. Calling Fowler’s account “abhorrent” is trying to reclaim the narrative once it’s spun out of control, rather than being conciliatory.
So, what’s the lesson here? Managing a global brand’s image is tough in the social media era, and there are certainly going to be times when things don’t go to plan. But when a viral sensation takes off – as keeps happening to Uber – company heads must recognize that reclaiming the narrative is not an option. Responding to claims directly, as painful as that can be, will come across as more sincere than just defiantly claiming the opposite is true. Put simply: companies simply don’t control their own narratives, and they must start operating without the hubris as they currently do.
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