Who cleared that?

How big corporate screw-ups happen is mystifying

Jeffrey Denny

Maybe you saw the Oct. 9 story about the Dove body-wash ad depicting a black woman pulling off her brown t-shirt to become a white woman, the internet firestorm, and the corporate mea culpa: “We apologize deeply and sincerely for the offense that it has caused and do not condone any activity or imagery that insults any audience.”

My interest is beyond the racial insensitivity: How the hell did this ad get out?

In my 30-plus years in leadership and crisis communications, I’ve seen a lot of corporate decision-making up close. It’s fascinating — both when it works, and even more when it doesn’t.

Business decisions, many eventually expressed in ads, often involve thousands of management hours spent in infinite meetings. External consultants gin up white papers and market insights at $750–1,000 an hour. Working groups make timelines, calendars and project plans for program managers to manage. Meeting presenters click through arrays of PowerPoint slides with charts visualizing terabytes of crunched data. Executives apologize to families for working nights, weekends and through vacations. Costly polling, surveys and focus groups test marketing campaigns and stakeholder responses.

Countless highly compensated professionals chew over the tiniest details, and then, like a cow with a cud, they cough up the mass and chew it again.

Believe me, if you’re like me and have a bias for action, the process is more painful than the colonoscopy and oral surgery I’m putting off. But it ensures that once the results go public, with millions of dollars in business or the company’s reputation at stake, the plan and roll-out has been fully vetted by all parties and scrubbed for any possible problem.

Like the 14 passengers in Agatha Christie’s mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, the corporate decision process is meant to say you’re all in this together, and you can’t finger a guy in marketing if things go south.

So I’m always mystified when headline-making corporate screw-ups happen, from the minor (earning a short reputation crisis) to the mortal (killing the company, zeroing billions in market cap and ruining your aunt’s retirement portfolio).

How do bad things happen to good companies? Especially after all the meetings, sandwiches, PowerPoints, and cud-chewing?

Cynics might devolve to the shopworn cliché of the clueless corporation. Instead I wonder: What kept a single person from raising a hand to say, “Um, sorry, that ad is going to create an internet firestorm”?

***

This piece is an entreaty to anyone in the corporate decision-making process, from the CEO to the ad buyer to the admin, to be that one person raising a hand.

No need to lose your job going to the mat. Just bring your native common sense, or street smarts, or whatever BS-meter you use to keep your family straight, and say something. Start with your boss.

Worse case, you’re ignored but can sleep at night knowing you did what you could. Best case, you save your company and your job.

If you speak up when something sounds wrong, who knows? You might prevent some of the most infamous corporate mishaps like these:

· Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner ad, where she heroically resolves a tense standoff between police and protestors with a can of soda

· Equifax’s initial response to the massive customer information hacking by charging customers to freeze their credit reports

· The Volkswagen diesel emissions test cheating scandal that cost the firm billions of dollars

· Turing Pharmaceuticals’ decision to pump the price of a crucial life-saving AIDS drug by 500 percent, from $13 to $750 a pill (for which CEO Martin Shkreli earned the title of “most hated man in America”)

· Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and FitchRatings, the major credit-rating agencies, which blessed trillions of dollars in junk subprime mortgages with their AAA rating, fueling the housing and financial collapse, and Great Recession

· Lehman Bros., forced into bankruptcy in 2008 after hiding more than $50 billion in loans disguised as sales

· Other infamous multi-billion accounting scandals at Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, AIG, Waste Management, etc., despite layers of internal and external checks and balances

· Microsoft’s decision in 2016 to hire scantily clad “schoolgirl” dancers for its Game Developers Conference after-party, as Business Insider reported

· Facebook’s admission it was used by Russians and the Trump campaign to flood member feeds with fake news and anti-Hillary propaganda to distort the 2016 election

On the knuckleheaded Dove ad, the Wall Street Journal reported, “It wasn’t immediately clear who created the spot. Ogilvy & Mather has historically handled much of Unilever’s advertising on Dove, but Unilever — which is on a cost-cutting drive — has recently been moving more of its advertising work in-house.”

Dove has a lot of smart people in house, and undoubtedly many saw the tone-deaf ad before it went out. Why didn’t anyone kibosh it? Inspector Poirot might deduce: The culprit was groupthink.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.