Whether your employees interact with millions of customers through media or a dozen at your cash register, business leaders must hold conversations about messages your employees convey. An employee’s action or communication—intentional, unplanned or accidental—can influence your organization’s revenue, reputation and relationships with customers.
Two case studies show disparity in handling a similar situation—an employee(s) making a gesture and statement commonly known as, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Protestors throughout the nation and world use the gesture and phrase to object to police brutality. It refers to allegations that Michael Brown had his hands up and pleaded with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson not to shoot him during a confrontation in 2014.
The following analysis isn’t meant to endorse any side or opinion regarding the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York. The focus is helping businesses and organizations understand how the actions of an employee can be interpreted—whether they are planned or spontaneous. Those actions can quickly change the public’s perception of your business or organization and its reputation. Immediate action must take place to manage the situation. Courage and leadership are required to make decisions in a rapid manner.
Even if prompt decisions are made to address adverse events, businesses and organizations must understand there will be sizable numbers of groups on opposite ends of the spectrum on every issue that will ignore facts and common sense regarding an incident.
Five St. Louis Rams Players Send Message To Millions
Five members of the St. Louis Rams made the gesture during pregame introductions on Dec. 1, 2014, less than a week after a grand jury announced they would not indict Wilson. (Click here to view an assortment of photos of the incident.) Testimony of several grand jury witnesses stated Brown didn’t raise his hands, nor did he plead with Wilson not to shoot. The public display infuriated many throughout the community, including the St. Louis Police Officers Association which called the gesture, “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.” However, the Ethical Society of Police in St. Louis, comprised mostly of African-American officers, released a statement supporting the players.
National Football League rules prohibit choreographed scoring celebrations involving more than one person. Players may be subject to fines for violating the rule. Less than 24 hours after the game, the NFL and the Rams announced the players wouldn’t be disciplined and no apology would be forthcoming. (The NFL might have been preoccupied with other media relations challenges. The following day, NFL officials testified before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing about domestic violence in professional sports.)
Three days after the game, tight end Jared Cook was designated to represent the other four players—Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt and Chris Givens—and explain their actions to the media.
“So why would I disrespect a group of men that we have complete respect for in the community?” Cook reportedly asked the media after a team practice, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story.
Tim Fitch, former Chief of the St. Louis County police department, provided a different insight to how the gesture was received by law enforcement and others throughout the community.
“Basically, they are assassinating every police officer out there in saying, ‘This is the kind of people you are,’ ” Fitch told Mark Reardon during an interview on KMOX radio. “They have a right to say that. But you know what? Does that mean that as a police officer, if I see an NFL player on the side of the road, do I say, ‘Hey, do you still beat your wife?’ because some NFL players beat their wives? No, that wouldn’t be fair.”
(Fitch’s use of the word, “assassinate,” is now chilling. Nine days later, two New York City police officers were assassinated by a person who earlier made threats to kill law enforcement on social media.)
The Rams’ discussed the event with law enforcement agencies, which provide hundreds of officers for all home games. During pregame ceremonies before their next home game, the Rams made a donation of $50,000 to The Backstoppers, an organization that provides assistance to families of first responders killed in the line of duty. A few weeks after that, the five Rams players distributed approximately $10,000 of clothing and toys to families in Ferguson.
One Chipotle Employee Sends Message To Nine NYPD
Chipotle executives apologized in late December to New York City police officers who were greeted by a restaurant employee who made the gesture, according to stories in the Associated Press, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
A statement from Chipotle said the employee’s action appeared to be spontaneous when a group of nine officers entered a Brooklyn restaurant. Executives said appropriate actions were taken toward the crew member, but declined to discuss those actions. The statement read in part,
“We work very hard to ensure that every customer in our restaurants feels welcome and is treated with respect. Clearly, the actions of this crew member undermined that effort. In no way was the behavior of this crew member consistent with our culture and our values as a company. We have taken appropriate actions with regard to the crew member involved, but we are not at liberty to discuss the specific actions taken.
“Additionally, we have reiterated to our team the importance of making all of our customers feel welcome in our restaurants. We have also apologized to many of the people who have contacted us regarding this issue. Above all, we would like to apologize to the officers involved in this incident. We have proudly served law enforcement officers in our restaurants around the country for the last 21 years and we continue to do so every day. We greatly respect the service they provide and welcome them into our restaurants.”
Calculating The Cost
There’s no way to accurately measure if the employee gestures will impact the long-term revenue of the businesses or the corporate reputation. One organization appeared to address the situation with a donation, the other with an apology.
Fitch, the former Chief of St. Louis County, expressed disappointment in elected officials for their silence regarding the situation.
“Name one local elected official since August—even since the grand jury evidence that was released—that has stood up and said, ‘We think officer Wilson was correct. He did the job the way he was trained,’” Fitch said. “They say to me, off to the side, ‘Hey, you guys are doing a good job. Keep up the good work.’ … I have my own ideas why they won’t say it publicly, but they won’t. I dare any of them to get on radio with you and say they support their police officers.”
And Then There’s Steve Weatherford…
Perhaps the best lesson in public relations regarding the situation might be learned from a punter for the New York Giants. Steve Weatherford learned about the assassination of the New York police officers the day before he helped the Giants beat the Rams 37-27 in St. Louis. The following Tuesday, he and his 7-year-old son visited the 18th Precinct in Manhattan to thank the officers for their service.
The next day—Christmas Eve—he was notified by the NFL to undergo a drug test.
Coming Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015: Tips To Help Your Organization’s Conversation About Employee Messaging