How Far is Too Far? A Cautionary Tale For Companies in Cultural Crisis

In today’s rapidly changing world, where consumers, employees and employers are inherently intertwined in a web of real-time tweets, viral videos, Snapchat stories and blog posts — one can understand why the laundry list of companies facing public relation calamities seems to be growing exponentially. Anyone can record and share wrongdoing. No company is safe from scandal.


A McKinsey study published this spring found that, in the past seven years, headlines appearing with the word “crisis” and the name of a Forbes top 100 company appeared 80 percent more frequently than in the decade prior. And this is largely a good thing — increased public transparency has resulted in companies being more careful, forcing them to put the consumer and employee experience first — and has forcibly held them accountable when missteps and errors in judgment are made.


We’ve also watched as these companies have had to respond to these crises — often “retooling” or “refitting” — changing leadership or replacing cultural values, sometimes even forging new identities altogether (see LIVESTRONG becoming The Live Strong Foundation following the public downfall of founder Lance Armstrong). But in the wake of a PR crisis, when it comes to doing away with the foundational pillars of a once thriving company in order to pave the path forward, how far is too far?


Recently, one of the great disrupter brands of the modern age, Uber, came under intense public scrutiny. A dash-cam video showing Travis Kalanick, founder and then CEO of the transportation giant, verbally abusing one of his drivers went viral. Couple that with a scathing workplace culture report from a former U.S. Attorney General uncovering egregious allegations of both gender bias and sexual assault, and the latest “company in crisis” headlines were formed.


Uber responded much as one would expect given the gravity of such news: Kalanick was canned, and former Expedia CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was installed to guide the company forward. This week, via LinkedIn, Khosrowshahi shared the results of a companywide effort to fashion new cultural values. The results (forged from 1,200 submissions from Uber employees, and then voted on 22,000 times) were as follows:



These replace the company’s previous values, which included “Always be hustling,’” “meritocracy and toe-stepping,” “let builders build” and “principled confrontation.” Values such as being “bold” and being “customer obsessed” survived, while others like “meritocracy and toe-stepping” were cut out altogether, according to a recent report by CNBC.


But in the name of righting the wronged ship, Uber may have done away with the special sauce that once gave the company its leg-up to begin with.


Let’s not forget, Uber is the challenger brands of challenger brands, taking on the very way we get from point A to point B. Public bicycle programs, taxi companies, bus unions, train systems — even the automobile industry itself — all were once in the crosshairs of this bold new company’s groundbreaking vision of travel. With ambitions to take on incumbents that defined how humanity gets around, globally — wouldn’t a certain aspect of scrappiness, irreverence and do-it-our-own-way attitude be intrinsic to the very essence of the Uber phenomenon?


Unfortunately for Uber, these new and improved guidelines sound almost identical to those of every tech giant in Silicon Valley, the same CNBC article reports. Of Facebook’s five core values, both “be bold” and “do the right thing” make an appearance. Google’s corporate code, introduced in 2000, famously stated, “Don’t be evil.” WeWork lists one of its core values as being “tenacious,” (a close synonym to Uber’s new value, “We persevere”). Jeff Bezos once penned a letter to shareholders in 1997 with an entire section entitled “obsess over the customer.” And “we build globally, we live locally” is noticeably close to the business platitude, “Think globally, act locally” conceived by social activist Patrick Geddes almost 100 years ago.


Moreover, can Uber’s leaders afford to bulldoze the core values that made them hungry and successful in the first place? In an increasingly crowded ride-sharing space, with newbies like Lyft, Via, Juno, Gett and Curb all fighting for a piece of the pie, projecting a culture that’s just like everyone else’s may be a surefire path to losing market share for first-in-flight innovators like Uber.


In responding to crisis, companies must be cautious in doing away with the tenets that may have brought them success to begin with. The number of companies under fire continues to grow — from United Airlines being perceived as an organization that has no qualms in dragging passengers off flights, to The Weinstein Company’s perception as a studio that is willing to go to great lengths to hide and excuse horrific instances of sexual abuse by their founder and namesake. Transparency and technology will continue to disrupt the status quo, creating a cacophony of new “crisis headlines” with it.


The Weinstein Company (TWC) is already on the radar of private equity giant Colony Capital for potential purchase, and will undoubtedly (and deservedly) face a cultural gutting, as well as a rebrand and rename. But which of the core qualities that once brought the company success will remain? Harvey Weinstein once claimed that he saw himself in his company’s persona (a statement that rightfully turns stomachs today), saying TWC never settled for no, always picked and rooted for “the underdog,” leveraged the “power of great narrative,” stopped at nothing to get their way. These were the very attributes that made the company top dog in the realm of producing and helped bring Oscar-winning titles like The King’s Speech to mass audiences. Whatever is left of the company following sale, buyers might find benefit in examining the value of preserving some of these core beliefs, beliefs which undoubtedly some of the surviving staff will continue to hold.


One of my colleagues argues that TWC’s culture is rife with abuse, fear and rationalization — and may be rotten to the core and not worth saving. That may be true, but as with any organization, one assumes there are talented people there who were once ruthlessly bullied and oppressed, and are now free to be rehabilitated under new leadership.


In the aftermath of a PR crisis, there are an infinite number of paths for new leadership to take. Undoubtedly certain problematic aspects of an organization must be extracted. But new leaders beware; proceed with caution. When tampering with the fundamental ethos of a company that once brought it success, you might find that, when the dust settles, the very company you were trying to fix no longer exists.


About the Author

Tennyson Singer is a Partner at Brandsinger. He is an accomplished brand and marketing strategist, and a former Senior Consultant at NYC-based brand strategy firm Siegelvision.