There are probably as many “first rules” of public relations and bad publicity damage-control as there are consultants and pundits who create such lists of rules. But one thing on which most of them agree is some version of this axiom: Understand the situation and decide on your bottom-line position before you open your fool mouth.
In other words, once you’ve offered an explanation for an action you’ve taken of which people disapprove, or something you’ve said that people didn’t like, suddenly changing course and serving up a completely different explanation isn’t going to work out well for you.
This is, one hopes, a lesson now being learned by the executives who run the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the company that operates the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), with respect to its treatment of Lora DiCarlo and the company’s Osé personal massager.
Let’s be clear: Whether the CTA’s decision to revoke the Innovations Awards honor previously granted to Lora DiCarlo truly was based on gender bias is beside the point here. When it comes to public relations, spin and damage-control, we’re not talking about reality, we’re talking about perception. And it’s safe to say that right now, many people perceive CTA’s actions as unfair, even unacceptable.
As I see it, the CTA’s current public relations headache stems every bit as much from its botched attempts to explain its decision as it does from the decision itself.
When Lora DiCarlo founder Lora Haddock was first informed of the CTA’s decision, the rationale she was given for the honor being revoked was akin to a social media platform pointing to a very selectively-enforced acceptable use or content policy.
This is the snippet of Innovation Awards policy the CTA cited in its explanation to Haddock: “Entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA’s opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules.”
Later, the CTA changed course, telling Haddock and inquiring media outlets that the Osé “does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program.”
“CTA has communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo,” the statement continued. “We have apologized to the company for our mistake.”
This revised rationale arguably makes even less sense than the first one, considering that the category in which the product was recognized was the Robotics and Drone category, and the Osé was developed in part by the robotics engineering laboratory at Oregon State University.
In any event, even if you accept the second reason offered by the CTA, it only invites the question: Why would you say your objection to the device was grounded in morality and decency, if the judgment was that the product wasn’t eligible in the first place?
There’s only one answer to that question: The CTA didn’t think through its handling of this decision until after it had both announced the decision and offered its initial explanation for it. Whatever you may think of the CTA’s decision, this is simply no way to handle public relations damage-control.
What should CTA have done? The most obvious answer is just give Lora DiCarlo the freaking award it earned, obviously. Once the decision had been made to revoke the honor, of course, that ship had already sailed.
Had the CTA gone with “the product doesn’t fit any category” rationale in the first place and then simply refused to offer any additional comment – something it may well have done had it considered in advance how to handle the situation – the organization still would have faced criticism. My sense is the criticism wouldn’t have sustained long though, or gone viral quite the way it has.
It seems the CTA has decided only now to keep its mouth shut, leaving the contrary explanations to be further skewered and scrutinized, rather than try to issue a better mea culpa. This may be for the best, though; if recent evidence is any indication, it’s an organization which in trying to dig out of a hole would merely dig the pit deeper.