PR Failure #27: All Trick, No Treat – CEO PR Failures Test Comms Teams

This month, we’re corralling some recent contradictions and CEO PR failures and the lessons we can learn. These leaders’ commitment to saying one thing and doing another remains unwavering, and it’s landed each in a sea of PR trouble. The good news? With failure comes learning. Let’s dive in.

1. A Rough Landing for Aviation Executive’s Final Months: International Airline Group’s Willie Walsh


In light of millions in lost revenue from COVID-19 and speculation about the end of his tenure, International Airline Group (IAG) Chief Executive Willie Walsh announced he would retire in 2020 from leading the aviation industry giant best known as British Airways’ parent company.

Walsh stuck around a little longer to help the IAG during tough times, but his hopes for a smooth – and financially beneficial – departure failed to win over IAG stakeholders. In turn, a large majority voted against Walsh’s nearly 900,000£ proposed exit compensation. This rejection flew in on the heels of IAG’s 12,000-person layoffs at the height of April’s COVID-19 concerns. Walsh famously pushed those layoffs forward despite calls to delay, stating, “We must act now to secure the maximum number of jobs possible, consistent with the reality of a structurally changed airline industry in a severely weakened global economy.”

Alas, in a “severely weakened global economy,” how did Walsh intend to step down from his role at a company struggling to secure thousands of jobs? With a lot of contradiction, it appears.

Lessons Learned
Understand and recognize the optics of your situation. When departing a company or preparing for transition after a long tenure, how you walk away can make or break your legacy as a leader. After a long career as Chief Executive, Willie Walsh delayed his departure slightly to guide the company through turbulent times and a leadership transition. If you’re wise enough to put off retirement during a global pandemic and corporate economic uncertainty, you should be wise enough to not leave with a massive compensation package during the same period.

Don’t underestimate the power of your stakeholders. Many corporate governance structures rely on stakeholders to steer company strategy, but these stakeholders are often overlooked or undervalued. For corporate executives who require stakeholder approval for major moves, it’s vital those individuals get on board with your plans. If they’re not, your company’s reputation—and your credibility as a leader—will suffer.

Action Item
Establish a clear stakeholder communications plan. With a defined approach to stakeholder communications, your company can be intentional about outreach and messaging. While a communications strategy may not convince all stakeholders you need a huge compensation package during a pandemic, it will at least emphasize that your company values stakeholder input, positioning leadership in a place to cull favor even amidst tough decisions.

2. Neither Walking – Nor Driving – The Talk: Ford CEO’s Black Lives Matter support doesn’t align with what’s under the hood

Following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, nationwide protests broke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Companies and CEOs came out against systemic racism in droves. In early June, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett addressed a letter to staff: “We know that systemic racism still exists despite progress that has been made. We cannot turn a blind eye to it or accept some sense of ‘order’ that’s based on oppression.”

Some Ford employees heard this as the company idling on the topic, demanding in a July letter that Ford leadership address systemic racism first and foremost by looking within the company itself, particularly Ford’s production and sales of police vehicles.

Shortly after, Ford CEO Jim Hackett buckled up and committed to his stance. The company will still continue to produce and sell vehicles to police departments. He summarized Ford’s goals and the “why” of this position, landing on a powerfully confusing message at the end:

Lessons Learned
You can’t have it both ways. Ford is trying to balance public support of two opposing ideas – to little success. Nearly two-thirds of police vehicles are made by the auto giant. And it’s hard to blame any company for wanting to maintain a highly profitable revenue stream. Yet, some may wonder how a company can care about protesting the deaths of Black people from police while continuing to manufacture – and profit from – the cars that drive those police around.Looking closer, Hackett’s remarks in support of the Black Lives Matter movement further run on empty. Though messaging claims Ford holds itself accountable to change and as a “powerful voice” for Black Lives Matter, the company’s lack of direct action to back that up and refusal to stop selling police vehicles speaks loudly about where the company stands, rendering its anti-racist rhetoric moot.Listen to your employees. Every day, your employees are on the ground, sustaining your company’s operations and production. We’ve said it before: Your employees are a core part of your brand. Should they raise issues or point out perceived contradictions within your company, leaders must listen, register and act, as that input can inform how the company improves. Tuning out employee input can breed resentment or distrust, and it will inhibit your growth as a company, too.Action Items
Address concerns specifically instead of trying to quell them with contradictory language. Hackett’s statement that Ford would be “holding ourselves accountable for significant change” is canceled out if the company takes no additional steps to illustrate specifically what “accountable” looks like, as some employees requested. Accountability doesn’t end in a statement. It starts with one.

Develop mechanisms to gain valuable employee input. Begin by looking to the people who work for you. If you’re a large company, work with your HR department to develop formal mechanisms like employee surveys that solicit feedback for improvement. If you’re smaller, involve employees directly in the input on improvements. Vulnerability, failure and error don’t hold us back. They help us learn.

3. Off-key Comments Have Spotify’s Tune Sounding Less Than Sweet: Spotify CEO Daniel Ek takes the “self-made” artist idea a little too far

The value of music is almost unquantifiable, but for artists sharing music on Spotify, one stream can mean less than pennies. Yet, Spotify’s oft-maligned, meager artist payout isn’t even the main news here. Recently, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek suggested musicians could only truly succeed if they produced music all the time, effectively demanding more effort from artists already working hard to survive. As Spotify’s value recently topped $50 billion and artists still struggle to earn money on the platform, Ek has remained steadfast in this stance, all despite holding major industry power and some of the keys to improving artist pay in the industry. As you might expect, musicians made some noise on social media.




Lessons Learned
Don’t blame a core tenet of your audience or customer base. This should be a no-brainer, but many leaders can become defensive when they feel threatened. But, attacking creators who make up your platform is a quick way to lose the trust of a core audience. Be a part of the solution that helps them. When the problem at hand is one you can influence, recognize your role and work to make change rather than demand it of others.

Action Item
Evaluate your messaging and change your tune as needed. A narrative of blame isn’t very forward-thinking. As a CEO, craft messaging that talks about what your company can do or is doing to drive innovation rather than turning your commentary outward. This is especially true during a pandemic and global crisis. Seek ways to help others rather than competing, promoting, or worse, scapegoating. Understand what people are looking for and provide resources for the audiences you serve.

The Path Forward

What makes a leader great? Is it bold, original ideas or fearless authenticity? It’s both, of course.

That said, a great leader must also have a clear vision, one that’s communicated coherently. At the core of these leaders’ contradictions and CEO PR failures is a lack of intention – a failure to see that their words and actions do not align with the messaging their companies aim to display or, even sometimes, with reality. It’s tough to be at the top, but it’s also difficult for consumers, stakeholders and employees of companies to tolerate inconsistencies. The first step forward is learning from contradictions past, so our present may be more honest, transparent and grounded in reality.

As we take that step, I encourage you to stay fearless, look for the contradictions in your own organization and always keep learning.

Until next month,
Aaron Blank
CEO + President
The Fearey Group

For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at feareygroup.com.