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Best Buy is current PR flub poster child

Change is hard

Leadership must embrace and sometimes even force change to protect an organization.

It seems like every month we have a new poster child that illustrates all that is wrong in corporate communications. A few months ago it was Netflix. Then Bank of America. Then Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Now, Best Buy is getting its turn in the spotlight.

As everyone who pays attention to the business media is aware, Best Buy is under severe pressure because of a business model that doesn’t work as well today as it did a few short years ago when the company was lauded as a retailing savior. Big box stores are too expensive. Their differentiator  of having techie experts ready to help isn’t economic. And Amazon is grabbing chunks of market share. At least that’s the conventional wisdom today. Check back in 24 months and I am certain that attitudes will have changed.

Into this macro story was dumped the smelly turd of an alleged sexual harassment misdeed on the part of the now former CEO Brian Dunn who was determined to have had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate. Didn’t he know those are only allowed on TV sitcoms?

Kudos to Gil Rudawsky for an excellent overview in Ragan’s PR Daily examining what organizations can take away from Best Buy’s foibles. He likens the saga (from Dunn’s resignation until last week’s resignation of founder/chairman Richard Schulze) to the slow drip of a blood letting.

Rudawsky and others suggest that this was a PR problem, when in fact it was an operational and leadership problem. The company’s leadership was slow to identify the relationship between two consenting adults as a problem, when in fact it was a serious breach both legally and ethically. They wanted to give their CEO the benefit of the doubt and resisted forcing a change. Those are the failures that kept the story alive.

So the best advice for organizations that want to avoid following in Best Buy’s footsteps would be to resist your adolescent sensibilities about workplace relationships between men and women. I mean, is it me or did we not get a pretty good handle on that 20 years ago during the Clarence Thomas confirmation process? Resist the cult of personality that often insulates a CEO and/or chairman (ahem Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake). Be ready to enforce all company policies and, in the process, to hurt people with whom you are friendly in order to protect your brand and everyone who relies on it.

These are the hard lessons of the Best Buy saga. Tough decisions are tough to make and human nature is to resist them and hang on to the status quo until the pain of continuing to do so is overwhelming. If you are a child of divorce like I am, you know what I am describing.

Nonetheless, Rudawsky offered some sage advice for companies responding to unpleasantness that I will repeat here:

  • Quickly activate response strategies and messaging for internal and external audiences;
  • Engage in online and offline stakeholder communication;
  • Designate on-the-ground staff to support employee teams locally, regionally, and nationally, if applicable;
  • Monitor and respond to traditional media and social media around the clock;
  • Develop and implement proactive reputation-management campaigns;
  • Review and revise crisis procedures and plans;
  • Continue to foster relationships with the media and key influencers and audiences.

Enduring a crisis can  leave an organization better off and in this case I absolutely believe that is true. The actions of the former leadership illustrate that they were not the change agents that are needed to re-imagine what Best Buy must become to return to relevance in the current retail upheaval. This cleansing may seem awful now, but it was a necessity.

And for those of you who are seasoned enough to have “Cult of Personality” in your heads, here is Living Color:

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Dan Keeney is the president of DPK Public Relations, which represents PULSE, The Aldridge Company, Schipul - The Web Marketing Company, Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Eradication, ERHC Energy, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Arocha Hair Restoration among other companies. Specialties include helping organizations increase their positive visibility and establish and strengthen relationships with influencers in their markets.