HAMDEN — Executives behaving badly. Sounds like the title of a sensationalistic reality TV show. But the phrase could apply to a real-life episode in the life of one CEO who recently made headlines when he was seen abusing his dog in a publicly released video.
Companies in such a position are forced to channel their efforts into addressing it. But what exactly should they do? Andrea Obston, who teaches in Quinnipiac University’s public relations program, counsels businesses on how to react when they find themselves in crisis mode.
“About 40 percent of my public relations practice is crisis management,” says Obston, who advises clients to “monitor and respond immediately when faced with negative publicity.”
In addition to her position as an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac, Obston is owner of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications in Bloomfield.
Last month Desmond Hague, then CEO of Stamford-based catering company Centerplate, made international headlines when a video showing him kicking his dog was made public. The development left Hague and his company — which services high-profile (and high-paying) clients that include National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League teams — open to global scrutiny and public backlash. The company’s board of directors responded by placing Hague on probation and fining him $100,000 (to establish an animal-cruelty prevention foundation). Hague subsequently resigned and an acting president and CEO was immediately appointed to replace him.
While to date Obston has not dealt directly with Centerplate regarding the Hague incident, she has worked with other companies in similar circumstances.
The first thing she tells them, she says, is to quickly address the issue publicly.
“Silence is not an option,” Obston says. “Damage to a reputation sometimes cannot be repaired. You need to do it [respond]. People are judging our corporation and how you handle the situation.”
Companies also should not waste time trying to debate issues of privacy, says Obston. Even though Hague’s damaging act did not occur at the workplace, the company still must respond.
“He’s a highly placed individual within the company,” Obston says.
The Hague situation is similar to that of Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team. Sterling made derogatory remarks during a private conversation and the exchange was recorded, unknown to him. It eventually was made public.
“The interesting thing is, you need to understand their [executive’s] private business becomes the company’s business,” Obston says. “The reality is that there needs to be more transparency now.”
Regrding Hague’s animal abuse, “People want to know why he wasn’t in control. If you don’t address it, they’ll wonder what else you’ve got to hide. Take control of the message early on.”
Also, be aware of reaction so you address it, says Obston.
“It [the company] needs to monitor the conversation,” she says. “It cannot rely on in-house sources to know what people are saying. If you’re not monitoring the conversation, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
There are two kinds of employee bad-behavior crises, notes Obston. One relates directly to the business, such as embezzlement. The other may not be directly work-related and is more character related. The initial company response for both is generally the same, she says.
First, “State you know about it,” says Obston. Then, “Demonstrate concern and compassion. Third, state that what [the employee] did is the antithesis of what you believe are your corporate values.”
If Obston were working with the employee, “I’d counsel him to come out as a human being and apologize,” she says.
“A successful crisis response is always governed by mission,” Obston says, adding that the response should last “as long as it’s out there.” However, she cautions, “you have to be careful you don’t feed it.”