Companies should look to PR to ensure strong characters before crisis hits; just ask Sony and Uber

Brands need PR to solidify high-integrity culturesA brand’s reputation can rise or fall based on how it reacts 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 days and 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 reacting based on their core nature.

When an unbalanced gunman with a long history with local police took hostages in a Sydney, Australia 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 goodwill people might have felt if they had been part of the company’s initial response. Instead, they will be viewed as only 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’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 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, since most legal experts don’t believe Sony can make a legal 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 broadcast a cell phone conversation that had been recorded illegally. 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 dilemma 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.”

But Boies went ahead and wrote the letter anyway, which has been widely publicized and adds even more to 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 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 in 2012, the 800 delegates endorsed the Melbourne Mandate, which the Global Alliance calls “a call to action of new areas of value for public relations and communications management.” The document argues that PR and communications professionals have a mandate to define and maintain an organization’s character and values, and to instill responsible behaviors by individuals and organizations.

A communicative organization, the Mandate says, has a clear sense of its core or ‘DNA,’ 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 case. 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?

While there are plenty of lessons to learn from both of these 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 DNA is inconsistent with the values of its customers. In an era where corporate behavior drives purchase and investment decisions as much as value, ignoring this critical dimension of public relations will leave a diseased culture in place and lead to more responses to circumstances that the public will revile.



  • 1.Well said Shel! I have long preached that PR folks have a responsibility to be the conscience of the organization helping raise awareness of the importance of good corporate behavior. Implicit in this is counseling management on the company's values and ferreting out behaviors that are counter to the mission of the enterprise.

    Gerry Corbett | December 2014 | San Francisco Bay Area