April 9, 2014
It seems like there’s a contest going on these days to see what executive or leader can say the dumbest, meanest or most insensitive thing.
For now, at least, my money is on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. It’s difficult to top his contributions in quantity or originality, some of which have graphic sexual connotations that are too unpleasant to repeat.
However, one of his declarations is especially notable: After many denials, Ford finally admitted that he had used crack cocaine. Then he made matters worse when he tried to justify the action, saying that this probably occurred during “one of my drunken stupors.” There isn’t anything like a steady hand at the wheel.
When reporters asked Ford why he initially denied using crack when they had questioned him about it earlier, the mayor said he would have admitted it but “the media didn’t ask the right questions.”
What was the right answer? “I should have admitted it in the first place.”
Foot-in-mouth disease is also a common affliction of some business leaders. A cardinal rule of business is this:
Never insult the customer.
Yet some CEOs can’t seem to resist doing it. Here are some recent examples from the past year:
Careless words can garner a lot of headlines, especially when they come off as self-pitying by the wealthy. AIG CEO Bob Benmosche likened the criticism of banker bonuses to the lynching of African-Americans in the Deep South, declaring that outrage over these rewards “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses…sort of like what we did in the Deep South (decades ago).” Benmosche later apologized but refused to resign.
Billionaire investor Sam Zell insulted 99 percent of the population by declaring that “the 1 percent work harder” than the rest of us. Try telling that to a construction worker laboring in 90-degree heat.
Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins also sees the superwealthy 1 percent in the Silicon Valley as victims. He compared antitech demonstrators to Nazis and suggested that we might be heading toward a new Kristallnacht — the night Hitler’s troops attacked Jewish residents and their businesses in parts of Germany and Austria in November 1938.
What advice should PR counselors give their shoot-from-the-hip bosses or clients?
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com