Words that wound and why facts are the only defense

In Britain, one of Chelsea’s outstanding defenders, John Terry, faces public disgrace and probable criminal prosecution for allegedly firing a racial slur at an opponent from Queens Park Rangers, Anton Ferdinand. Terry, who captains England’s national “football” team, denied uttering the word.

On a decidedly smaller sports scale, members of the Kenmore East High School girls basketball team near Buffalo faced suspensions because for the last five years — it’s now revealed — teammates shared a pre-game ritual cheer that included the N-word. This came to light this year when the team’s only black member fought back — literally — and was suspended. The chant originated with two girls, one white, one African-American.

There are few words with as many repercussions as racially charged ones. On the “really bad” scale, these utterances probably fall right after homicide, child abuse and drunken driving with deaths or injuries in terms of potential impact on yourself or your company.

The U.S. Justice Department recently agreed to accept a $335 million fine from Countrywide Financial, which charged higher fees to black mortgage customers than white ones on the same sized mortgages in the same neighborhoods. You can’t apologize enough.

In managing a crisis involving charges of racism, the same rules apply. Be honest, accept responsibility and blame, if necessary [they are not the same]; offer corrective action, show transparency and express remorse. And institute actions and programs that will prevent re-occurrence.

I know of one case where a high-profile company managed to extricate itself from the sucking quicksand of racial insensitivity, mainly because the charges were false. Though in this realm, you are always guilty until proven innocent.

New Era Cap, headquartered in Buffalo, is an internationally known manufacturer of sports and fashion caps and clothing. A few years back, two national powerhouses, the NAACP and the Teamsters, charged that racist practices and occurrences existed at New Era’s non-unionized plants in Alabama. These charges ignored that New Era was the only sports apparel manufacturer of any significance still employing American plant workers.

Without going into a full case study of what happened — there are many good articles from the time — New Era’s response worked. It already had a crisis plan in place, had media trained its executive suite, and moved very fast when it learned the charge was coming.

Its response enlisted allies who could testify that the company was not racist, and involved workers and supervisors from the plants themselves to talk about how well everyone was treated.

The company also produced superior comparative pay scales, benefits packages and employment histories for Alabamans at the plants to support those testimonies. And, it utilized the fact that it was the last American sports equipment manufacturer with Made in America credentials — something the Teamsters, especially, couldn’t pretend didn’t matter.

The company enlisted its unionized workforce for a rally at its Derby, NY plant. Members of the Communications Workers of America spoke glowingly and credibly about their jobs and how the family owned company treated them.

Whether the taint of racism comes from a high-profile professional athlete, a corporation or a small segment of one high school, it can devastate an institution. And, if true, it should.

But if you are prepared in advance for any crisis, have facts on your side and your friends and allies will rally around you, it’s possible to blunt those charges and make them disappear.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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