A sexist joke made during an internal meeting to address sexism plunged a company into a fresh crisis this week.
The comment, which was recorded by a disgruntled employee and leaked to the media, highlights once again how damaging off-the-cuff comments can be to organisations.
This latest incident resulted in a high profile resignation and came during an Uber meeting about changing the company’s culture.
The disparaging remark was made, without any sense of irony, as employees were informed of the recommendations of an independent report into the company’s heavily criticised culture.
As Uber board member Arianna Huffington announced the appointment of another woman to the company’s board of directors, her colleague David Bonderman felt this was the perfect opportunity to deliver a sexist joke.
Here is a transcript of the embarrassing exchange which led to the foot-in-mouth moment:
Ms Huffington: “There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board.”
Mr Bonderman: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”
Ms Huffington: “Ohhh. Come on, David.”
Mr Bonderman apologised to employees after the meeting and a few hours later resigned, saying he did not want his ‘careless, inappropriate and inexcusable’ comments to ‘create a distraction’ as Uber attempts to turn around its culture. He added: “I need to hold myself to the same standards that we’re asking Uber to adopt.”
For a company which has developed an unhealthy recent habit of having to regularly apologise, this was the last thing it really needed. It also came at a time when CEO Travis Kalanick announced he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence.
And it created another raft of damaging headlines and social media mentions.
Uber board member resigns after making joke about women at company event on sexual harassment Chicago Tribune
David Bonderman resigns from Uber board after sexist remark New York Times
Uber board member resigns after sexist remark at meeting addressing sexism The Guardian
Why I deleted Uber: Board member David Bonderman said women talk too much during a company meeting about sexism. https://t.co/e5tO4Waim4— Rebecca Bell (@rebbell) June 16, 2017
David Bonderman in the midst of a tsunami makes a moronic comment. Can't help himself so what do you think women put up with on normal days— Jason Hirschhorn (@JasonHirschhorn) June 13, 2017
Uber is, of course, not the first company to find itself in a crisis media management situation as a result of ill-judged off-the-cuff comments.
Other infamous examples include the then BP CEO Tony Hayward commenting that ‘I want my life back’ while fronting his company’s response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, and Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis describing France as ‘sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat’, shortly before his company was due to launch a French language website. And, of course, no-one can forget Gerald Ratner and his ‘because it is total c**p’ comment.
The impromptu and unplanned nature of these comments means it can be particularly challenging for comms teams to manage the fall out.
However, there are a few things comms teams can do to minimise the damage and risk.
Make sure you have a crisis media management plan in place because if a boss makes any remarks like the Uber one, or the other examples in this blog, you will find yourself in crisis mode.
Although this particular example came at an internal meeting, many of these off-the-cuff gaffes have happened at speaking events. Comms teams should ensure they always know where and when their senior leaders will be speaking, even if there is not expected to be any media present – in the modern world anyone with a smartphone and a decent signal can instantly report any damaging remarks.
Believe it or not, some high-profile speaking gaffes were written well in advance. Comms teams should ask executive teams members to run through any public statements they will be making and suggest changes if necessary.
Comms teams should ensure bosses have had recent media training and presentation skills training. It may prevent them making the comments in the first place. If not, they will need the skills to handle the media afterwards.
As in any crisis, if the worst happens you need to get your messages out quickly. Even if your initial statements are short and lack detail they will at least show you are in control.
The one positive thing you can say about the Uber incident was that Mr Bonderman was quick to admit he had made a mistake. Other organisations in a similar situation need to act equally quickly and ensure apologies sound genuine and honest.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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