“We’re on a mission from God.” Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers
What a week the holiday season brought for tech companies – and their crisis communicators. In the space of seven days before Christmas:
- The Wall Street Journal reveals the Amazon’s “Choice” designation does not actually reflect the company’s imprimatur – and is being gamed by sellers to appear on misleading, dangerous, and even illegal products. Not to mention that literal garbage can be (and is being) packaged and resold on Amazon.
- Airbnb is fingered by the Journal for taking “halting steps” to protect customers and renters from “shooting, sex crime, and theft” in its properties.
- Boeing (included in this discussion because of its recent technology woes) waves goodbye to CEO Dennis Muilenburg after halting the production of its troubled 737 Max jetliner and the botched launch of its Starliner space vehicle.
- And Uber founder Travis Kalanick zeros out his stake – culminating a steep fall from grace, including his ouster as CEO in 2017, occasioned by an astounding series of scandals.
What links all these corporate disasters? Spurned internal (and sometimes, external) warnings – followed by limp crisis responses.
Amazon has stayed mum for years when challenged as to how products earn “Choice.” Yet the Journal found the label on a sexual-enhancement drink containing Viagra (sans required prescription), hallucinogenic mushroom products, toys claiming Food and Drug Administration approval (the agency doesn’t approve toys) and chargers falsely claiming Apple certification.
The e-retailer told the paper it “doesn’t tolerate policy violations such as fake reviews, counterfeits and unsafe products, and will remove Amazon’s Choice badges for products ‘that may not meet our high bar.’”
Right. There’s only one correct response to these facts: “We’re suspending Amazon Choice until we can ensure the level of quality and safety it implies to our customers.”
The Journal’s Airbnb story highlighted how five murders at an “Airbnb Mansion Party” – and the discovery of a “naked and aroused” male guest with an “extensive criminal record” in bed with his hosts’ seven-year-old daughter – occurred after CEO co-founder and Chief Executive Brian Chesky rejected an internal proposal to require a government-issued ID from users.
Airbnb had responded to security issues with a series of measures – but couldn’t resist lamenting the difficulty of verifying users online and pointing out that just 0.05% of trips in the year ending July 31 involved a safety-related issue. As if that challenge, or that record, matters when an “aroused” miscreant climbs into bed with your little girl.
The right response: “Statistics are meaningless when it comes to our hosts’ and guests’ well-being. We won’t compromise on their safety and will undertake a far-reaching operational review with security experts to maximize their protection.”
Boeing apparently ignored suggestions to upgrade the Max’s jury-rigged safety systems, give pilots more information and training, and halt sloppy production processes. The company has clashed with regulators and relentlessly defended the airliner’s design – with Muilenburg practically racing off the podium when reporters pressed him last year in a press conference on his claims that a single software update would result in “one of the safest planes to ever fly.”
What might a more appropriate posture have been? “The Max will not return to the skies until we have thoroughly tested its technology and training procedures with regulators and our customers to ensure it really is the safest plane ever to fly.”
But the king of tech boys behaving badly was Kalanick (except maybe Elon Musk). Scandals under his watch included technology theft, anticompetitive behavior, misleading recruitment efforts – and Kalanick’s heated argument with one of his own drivers, shared in a viral video. But most important, internal downplaying of harassment complaints in a company where the founder incredibly joked about “women on demand,” elaborating, “We call that Boob-er.”
Yet it took months of escalating embarrassments and a harassed female engineer’s public memo to move Uber to appropriate action: an investigation that led to cashiering the reckless Kalanick.
What is it about techs and their executives that has them seemingly constantly in trouble – and public denial?
The view here: besides a relentless chase after growth, their belief, with the Blues Brothers, that they are on their own “mission from God.” Jake and Elwood felt keeping open the orphanage where they grew up justified epic car chases (destroying 103 vehicles), theft and deception. And it seems innovators can be equally blinded by an unshakeable faith in their purpose – and their technology’s power – to drive world-changing disruption. Hence the ubiquity of high-minded mission statements.
Yet at what point does the carnage in lost safety and even lives justify an unbridled belief in technology to bring new levels of convenience and price transparency to commerce, unleash private resources to simplify lodging and transportation, or offer airlines cost savings and fuel efficiency?
At the point where it rides roughshod over the expectations of regulators, consumers, and society. A juncture these companies are (or in Uber’s case, were) all well past.
To reiterate a core crisis principle: good PR won’t fix bad facts. And neither will good intentions – even a “mission from God” to change the world.
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