A tale of two PR crisis responses—why only one of them worked

by | Nov 13, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

Two companies, two crises, two different responses. Google and NBC both found themselves under attack as a result of the inappropriate behavior of their employees. Both situations got heavy news coverage and backlash on social media—but one was clearly handled more professionally.

One of Google top executives and Android founder, Andy Rubin, left the company in 2014 where he received a “hero’s farewell,” according to a New York Times investigation. Google, however, failed to disclose he had been accused of sexual misconduct at the time, resulting in his resignation. Additionally, Rubin was paid an exit package totaling $90 million.

NBC’s crisis involved a comment made host Megyn Kelly on “Megyn Kelly Today,” where she made comments defending blackface during a roundtable with other NBC personalities. “Back when I was a kid that was okay, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character”, said Kelly. NBC has since announced she will not be returning to the show.

How the crises played out

Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly

Kelly’s comments received a barrage of critical social media comments, including a tweet from author and TV host, Padma Lakshmi, who called out Kelly on her “ignorance”, noting the role of blackface in upholding Jim Crow laws, “which served to humiliate & target Black Americans.”

Meanwhile, in response to the Times article, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent out an internal memo to employees which referred to 48 employees at Google who had been ousted as a result of sexual misconduct since 2016, of which 13 were senior level executives. Pichai noted “none of these executives received an exit package” and Google was taking “an extremely hard line” toward sexual harassment allegations.

In his memo, Pichai noted Google updated its policy requiring all VPs and SVPs to report relationships with employees. This move is likely a response to the Times investigation which further uncovered several cases of inappropriate use of power by executives who pursued relationship with lower-level employees. Pichai’s response also owned up to problems within Google’s workplace culture and the abuse of power by senior level employees, as well as referring to internal resources for affected employees.

Why one response succeeded and the other failed

Andy Rubin

Andy Rubin

The problem with Pichai’s response is that it failed to address two things: the issue of Rubin’s massive severance package and the consequences for future instances of sexual harassment. The response was also lacking in a sense of remorse and did not include a direct apology. Whether Pichai would have addressed this issue if Times didn’t come out with a report is another question in consideration.

In the case of NBC and Kelly, the rules of crisis communications were followed. A direct apology was issued live on air. Kelly apologized tearfully, saying “I was wrong, and I am sorry”.

While Google’s response was four years too late and did not adequately address the issue at hand, NBC responded swiftly to Kelly’s comments removing her from the network, illustrating the company’s values. At the very least, they are giving the appearance that bad behavior won’t be tolerated—a win in crisis PR.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and Chairman of 5W Public Relations: 5WPR is one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.