It’s 2018, and CEOs Are Still Saying Very Dumb Things
In an era in which companies and their executives are under more scrutiny than ever, and when a climate of political correctness beckons accountability for every faux pas uttered—deservedly so, I might add—it is yet astonishing that corporate leaders continue to make very public statements that espouse very dumb viewpoints. As tends to be the case, these officers are public faces for their organizations, if not namesakes. In the name of protecting their brand and avoiding bad optics, one would think these influential figures would make it a priority not to do or say anything that could generate negative publicity.
Of course, it may simply be that these individuals can’t help themselves. While not a chief executive, Roseanne Barr ran into this situation recently when, not long after a successful reboot of her eponymous ABC show got underway, she went and blew up her opportunity by tweeting disparaging comments of a racist and Islamophobic nature about Valerie Jarrett, businesswoman and former Obama White House official. Essentially, all Barr had to do was not make disgusting remarks like the one that got her show canned. And yet, she felt compelled. The real downside of this, as some might argue, is that a show with working-class appeal that could have helped further a discussion about race and politics in this era was cut short. For Roseanne’s sake, few but her staunchest defenders were sympathetic.
To be fair, and while not to in any way excuse likening a black person to an ape, it’s often in a comedian’s job description to say things that are off-color or to behave in somewhat of a subversive way. With CEOs, however, it is not, and this what makes their lapses particularly alarming. Granted, they might not be particularly well-versed in the intricacies of HR guidelines and PR campaigns. Still, given their prominence within their organizations—frequently accompanied by a salary and benefits that more than compensates them for their time, effort, and expertise—one would think they would use the resources at their disposal to better guard themselves against negative outcomes. Or better yet, rely on their business savvy and common sense.
Instead, we get John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, dropping an N-bomb during a company conference call. Schnatter did own up to using the epithet following reports of this incident, if we are to give him any semblance of credit, and there was a context to his utterance of the slur—though even with this in mind, he probably could’ve done without it.
The problem with this context is that it doesn’t make Schnatter seem any less reprehensible. His employ of the term occurred when trying to make an analogy about his criticism of the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell in failing to adequately address player protests of the National Anthem (specifically, as a problem to be “nipped in the bud”) and hurting the company’s bottom line versus Col. Sanders, iconic founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, using the epithet in his own right. As Schnatter seemed to suggest, there was a measure of unfairness about him being singled out for his criticisms of the NFL while Sanders didn’t catch the same flak.
This comparison is a problematic one for multiple reasons. For one, while any deep-seated prejudices held by Harland Sanders’s can only be guessed, and while he may have been slow to adopt less offensive terminology for African-Americans or even contributed to the likes of pro-segregation presidential candidate George Wallace, his use of that word appears largely based on conjecture. Besides, trying to exonerate yourself by contrasting your actions with those of a man who dressed like a plantation owner through the Jim Crow era isn’t exactly a terribly high bar to clear. More than a quarter-century after Sanders’s death and in an age in which corporations are more cognizant than ever about their public image, this much should be more or less an afterthought.
It should be stressed that John Schnatter stepped down as CEO back in December after the backlash he and Papa John’s received following his comments about the NFL and player protests, so technically he is no longer serving in that function. In the wake of his more recent admission of using the N-word, Schnatter has also resigned as chairman. Although now he considers resigning a mistake. And the remaining board members have adopted a “poison pill” provision to try to avoid attempts by Schnatter to make a power play and reclaim his position atop the board. Simply put, it’s a mess, one that may have predated these controversies, but one which was magnified by them.
You may or may not have high regard for the Papa John’s product. I live in an area in which there is no shortage of local pizzerias, let alone Domino’s and Pizza Hut, so I personally could take or leave it. Regardless of one’s judgment of Papa John’s taste and overall quality, with over 4,500 locations worldwide, it’s not as if one can easily dismiss the restaurant chain. With other companies related to technological advances, there is perhaps a greater sense of demand or interest based on the novelty of their goods or services. This not withstanding, they too are subject to their founder/CEO going rogue in an era and in industries where public perception arguably should dictate more responsible behavior.
Mark Zuckerberg, fresh off a very public scandal involving the possible exposure of up to 87 million Facebook users and their data to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, recently was interviewed by Kara Swisher of Recode fame, and while the interview touched on a number of different topics, on the subject of whether or not conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones should have a platform, Zuckerberg said something rather befuddling about Holocaust deniers and whether they deserve to be banned. The relevant segment of the interview, as copied from the transcript:
Okay. “Sandy Hook didn’t happen” is not a debate. It is false. You can’t just take that down?
I agree that it is false.
I also think that going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, “Hey, no, you’re a liar” — that is harassment, and we actually will take that down. But overall, let’s take this whole closer to home…
I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.
I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think-
In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.
It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.” What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.
Swisher makes an all-too-valid point, as the majority of us would agree. Sandy Hook was not a hoax. There is no debating the merits of whether it happened or not. The same goes for the Holocaust. There simply is no place in regular discourse for litigating its legitimacy. Unless you are, say, a child who is just becoming able to comprehend what the Holocaust was and the devastation it wrought, any meditations on the intent of deniers is ridiculous. They intend to deny these events as a function of their anti-Semitism. There’s no leeway here.
Zuckerberg would soon after E-mail a clarification to Swisher about how “deeply” offensive he finds Holocaust denial and that he “absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.” But, Mr. Zuckerberg, Mark, if I may—you pretty much just defended it by saying it’s hard to “impugn intent.” It’s like President Donald Trump saying there was room for blame “on both sides” related to the unrest and violence in Charlottesville after a group of white nationalists rallied. When there are Nazis holding freaking torches, you disavow them. This is basic stuff.
In Zuckerberg’s case, he made comments that, at best, signify he is out of touch with the impact Facebook has and how it can be used to influence people to join in destructive causes. At worst, they signify that he understands this impact full well, but he and his company are actively choosing not to censor dangerous content because it affects the company’s bottom line.
Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only high-profile tech-oriented CEO to meet with criticism, only to take his foot and jam it squarely into his mouth. For the longest time, Elon Musk and Tesla Motors have seemingly gotten a free pass from news media because their product is not only sleek and sexy (and hella expensive), but lends itself to optimism about a future in which electric cars have greatly reduced our consumption of fossil fuels and autonomous driving can reduce costs and fatalities in vehicle crashes.
More recently, however, as Tesla has tried to produce its vehicles on a larger scale, it has met with production delays and quality issues, not to mention a well-publicized death involving the use of autonomous vehicle technology and concerns about injuries at company facilities being underreported. Understandably, the organization has received a fair amount of negative press in this regard, and Musk has taken it upon himself to criticize the media and even suggest creating a service by which users can assess the “core truth” and “credibility” of editors, journalists, and publications.
Musk isn’t entirely out of bounds with his defensiveness in the face of criticism at the hands of major media outlets. This is to say that, when the demand to generate clicks or potentially to satisfy corporate donors within the fossil fuels industry is ever-present, coverage of Tesla Motors’s doings can easily be skewed. Going after Reveal, a publication by the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, meanwhile, for a story about the aforementioned workplace safety concerns at Tesla and labelling them an “extremist organization” carries less weight, and connotes a sort of thin-skinned petulance, if not signaling a rising desire among corporate and political leaders to intimidate or invite violence against journalists who don’t play nice for the sake of playing nice.
Musk caught flak again when he volunteered a child-sized submersible in the midst of the rescue of the Thai soccer team cave rescue that drew a worldwide audience. Right then and there, the Tesla CEO merited criticism for offering a solution based on an incomplete understanding of the logistics of the rescue, an act many saw as a PR maneuver designed to distract from his company’s failings of late. When Vern Unsworth, a British diver involved in the rescue, was asked about Musk’s “contribution,” he panned it, saying that it had “no chance” of working and that Musk could kindly “stick it where it hurts.”
Musk, because he is a CEO of a major corporation and highly attuned to the workings of social media, took this comment in stride. Kidding! He promptly tweeted and called Unsworth a pedophile, and then apologized for calling him a pedophile—while at the same time justifying his defensive snipe based on Unsworth’s “several untruths” and because the diver told him his idea was terrible.
That’s the kind of thing you shouldn’t say even if you’re not the face of Tesla Motors—and if you are, all the worse. Musk should know better than to throw a hissy-fit over Twitter. And yet, he doesn’t, or at least didn’t. If his apology is any indication, he’s sorry only because it brought him and Tesla more bad press, not because he’s genuinely contrite about making callous, unjustifiable accusations about a man trying to rescue young children.
What’s so unsettling about the awful words of Elon Musk and the above-named individuals is that they are accompanied by a lack of true remorse and/or excuses for their questionable choices. Roseanne Barr claims she didn’t even know Valerie Jarrett was black when she made her infamous comment, and that it was her vote for Donald Trump which doomed her show. John Schnatter, already in the habit of making excuses by blaming the NFL for lower earnings, has tried to justify his use of the N-word on the basis that he didn’t use it as a slur. Mark Zuckerberg professes he never meant to defend the intent of Holocaust deniers—except he totally did. These explanations ring hollow and arguably exacerbate the controversy in each case. Don’t try to hedge. Just admit you messed up, say you’re sorry and hope that people will forgive you.
Likewise disconcerting is the idea that these antics either have or continue to run the risk of overshadowing a great product. What’s more, if there is a lesson to be gleaned from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, it’s that no one should be considered impervious to consequences for their actions. Whether the damage people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. have done to their careers is truly long-term remains to be seen, but either way, theirs is not the kind of potential damage to one’s brand and career that one wishes to invite. In a day and age when corporate social responsibility is more than a passing concern, and when privacy seems to be on a continuous decline, the same can be said for the likes of Musk, Schnatter, and Zuckerberg.
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And the problem is even worse, since they not only show the ineptitude (of some), but also their true beliefs and intentions