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Lessons From Google’s Search To Protect Its Reputation

By Thom Fladung/Hennes Communications

Any business leader who’s been caught in a hailstorm of criticism after an internal matter went viral must have had a surge of schadenfreude watching the Google diversity memo controversy. Google leadership was immersed in a crisis over an internal memo in large part because, well, people could Google it.

Beyond that briefly satisfying guilty pleasure at the misfortune of others, what can be learned from this example of crisis and reputation management?

A recap: On Friday, Aug. 4, a 10-page memo from a Google software engineer leapt from internal Google communications vehicles to going viral online, apparently reported first by Motherboard. The memo questioned Google diversity campaigns and, most explosively, argued that any gender gap at Google could in part be attributed to biological differences – i.e., women on average are more open to feelings and are more neurotic; men care more about things than feelings and have a higher drive for status. By Saturday evening, an email to employees from Google’s vice president of diversity, criticizing the memo, was online. On Sunday, Google’s CEO weighed in with an email to employees – that also leaked quickly. On Monday, news broke of the firing of software engineer James Damore.

As Business Insider reported, Google is faring well on social media, with positive mentions of its actions.

In Fortune, Adam Galinsky wrote of the classic “right vs. right dilemma” with the employee’s right of free speech clashing with the right to protect people from speech that creates a hostile work environment. “Whatever action Google took,” Galinsky wrote, “needed to be fast, clear and thoughtfully articulated.”

Google met that test – and many others. See if you’d be up for these challenges.

  • Act fast. Google’s leaders didn’t have the luxury of pondering a response. Social media and today’s speed of communications require action.
  • Remember your most important audience – your own employees. Within hours of the crisis going public, Google Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance Danielle Brown emailed Google employees. “We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” Brown wrote. Of the memo, she said, “I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.”
  • Crises never happen at convenient times. Brown started at Google just a few weeks ago. CEO Sundar Pichai was out of the country on work – and about to start a family vacation. You can’t prepare for every specific crisis. But you can have a crisis management plan for how you’ll respond to any crisis. Google’s responsiveness indicates someone was planning.
  • Don’t deny the obvious. Damore has supporters – inside and outside the company. He raised what sound like valid issues of concern. CEO Pichai addressed that in his communication to employees on Sunday: “…much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. ”
  • Assume your crisis has long legs. Assess and keep planning. On Monday, Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Wired reported that Damore performed an offensive skit while a Harvard student and on his LinkedIn profile deleted a degree he claimed but which he had not earned. This is all far from over.
  • Keep matching your words with action. CEO Pichai canceled his vacation, planned to return from overseas and hold a Google town hall meeting on Thursday. Bet that was an interesting meeting.

Thom Fladung is a vice president at Hennes Communications.



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