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Nov 13 2013

Handling Criticism: Decide Who Represents You

On September 25, Guido Barilla, part owner and chair of pasta maker the Barilla Group, appeared on Italian radio show La Zanara. In a discussion with the show’s hosts on using families headed by same-sex couples in adversiting, Barilla made a number of comments that revealed ignorance of and prejudice. (All quotes from Guido Barilla have been translated.)

For us, the ‘sacral family’ remains one of the company’s core values. Our family is a traditional family. If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don’t like that, they will eat someone else’s pasta. You can’t always please everyone not to displease anyone. I would not do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect toward homosexuals – who have the right to do whatever they want without disturbing others – but because I don’t agree with them, and I think we want to talk to traditional families. The women are crucial in this.

He also took the opportunity to suggest that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt.

I respect same-sex marriage because that concerns people who want to contract marriage, but I absolutely don’t respect adoptions in gay families, because that concerns a person who is not the people who decide.

When calls to boycott Barilla pasta were called for based on these statements, Guido Barilla took to Twitter to issue an apology.

I apologize very much for having offended the sensibilities of many. I have the deepest respect for all #people without distinction. Guido #Barilla

That wasn’t a bad apology, although it didn’t address Barilla’s statements directly, but it was spoiled almost immediately by another apology on Facebook.

With reference to my statements made yesterday to La Zanzara, I apologize if my words have led to misunderstandings or controversy, and have encroached on the sensibilities of some people.

For clarity I would like to point out that I have the deepest respect for any person, without distinction.

I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and for freedom of expression to anyone.

I also said and repeat that respect marriages between persons of the same sex.

Barilla in its advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is a symbol of welcome and of affection for all.

This, of course, only served to highlight which families Barilla Group considered acceptable for their advertising. The wording Barilla used here echoed the wording he used on the radio. He repeated all the nice things he’d said the day before as though he expected people would have forgotten what had followed.

In a moment of irony, that same morning, the Mexican Barilla Twitter account tweeted, “#ItalianData: A beautiful Italian custom to invite the whole family to eat when you make a new friend.” Barilla U.S. Twitter simply said, “While we cannot undo words that have been said, we can apologize. To all of those that we have hurt or offended, we are deeply sorry.”

Meanwhile, competitor Buitoni seized the opportunity to post a picture of open doors and an inviting courtyard on its Italian Facebook page with the simple statement, “At House Buitoni, there is room for everyone.” On its U.S. page, it used tortellini and linguine to draw symbols between a man and a woman, two men, and two women. There, the caption read, “Pasta for all.”

Finally, the next day, Barilla posted a video apology. He told the public he had some learning to do on the topic of same-sex families and that he’d be in contact with groups that could educate him about how families are changing. It was a good step. It addressed the concerns people had with his original statement in a way his vague comments about families hadn’t. It was believable in a way simply rejecting his prior statements wouldn’t have been. He was taking a concrete action instead of offering mere words.

Unfortunately for Barilla Group, most people had already tuned the company out. They never watched the video interview. They were left with the bad impressions made by Barilla’s radio interview and his early attempts at apology.

When the person who makes a mistake is your organization’s chair and owner and the person whose name the company carries, you may not have the option to find someone else to clean up any mess they make. Nor do you always have that option when you’re an individual facing criticism. If you do have that option, however, it’s often a wise idea to take it.

When people are mad, the last person they’ll want to listen charitably to is the person who made them mad. That person has already lost their trust. The situation often feels personal. We tend to think that people are more consistent in their behavior than they actually are, a phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error. We think behavior we observe even once is a reflection of who someone is, not just something they’ve done. So the person who delivered that (real or perceived) injury looks like a jerk, not the person who is here to make everything better.

Not only is a fresh face more likely to be heard when addressing criticism, but they’re more likely to handle the situation well. Because they’re not facing personal criticism, they can afford to feel less defensive. This broadens their view. They’re also less likely to use the same language they originally used, as Guido Barilla did.

Most importantly, however, allowing someone else to handle the response to criticism allows you to call in the experts. Whoever handles your response to criticism has to be able to make decisions, or at least to get a quick response from people who do make decisions, but they don’t necessarily have to be your top people. If you have a large organization, identify your team of experts early, before criticism strikes. You need people who think quickly, and people who are skilled in diplomacy. Nor do these have to be the same people, as long as they can work together.

Two kinds of experts are too often overlooked in a crisis. Sometimes, the leadership of large organizations feel they must have such tight control over their messaging in a crisis that they fail to use their communication experts to help them get their messages out. This is almost always a mistake. It can result in statements empty of any content, or it can produce responses filled with organizational jargon just when a human touch is most needed. If you have people you trust to effectively talk to your customers or constituents, don’t stop trusting them when problems occur–unless, of course, they’re the people who created the problem.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but legal experts, if you have access to them, become more important in these situations rather than less. People propose all sorts of solutions when they’re under the gun that they wouldn’t otherwise consider, simply because the situation is unusual. It’s good to have someone around whose job it is to remember the rules your organization operates under, both internal rules and those imposed by law. Don’t forget: Nixon didn’t know about the Watergate break-in until after it happened. It was the cover-up that got him and so many of his staff in the worst trouble.

As important as it is to have a competent team to handle your reaction to criticism, it is also important to make sure that your people who do have contact with the public have some idea how to react. These are people who represent you and who are, presumably, invested in the outcome of the situation. They will be asked what’s happening, and they may want to talk about something that’s already on their minds. It’s a recipe for uniformed speculation.

In these cases, it’s important to give your people something to say. Fill that natural vacuum with the message you want them to spread before they fill it for you. Ask them to hold off until everyone has all the information. If the criticism is fresh, typically within the first 24 hours, the statement can be something very simple. “Our people are looking into this. We’re taking it seriously. We expect to have a statement shortly.” If you’ve passed that initial 24-hour period, the statement should be slightly more detailed about the cause of the delay. After a final resolution has been made, make sure they know what the organization’s position is. In any case, anything you ask them to communicate should match official statements.

What do you do when you’re one individual facing criticism, or as with Barilla, you and the organization being criticized share an identity? Unless you have a publicist, you’ll probably have to speak for yourself, but the rest of this still applies. Talk to people on your side who are fast thinkers, diplomats, and communicators. Make sure you have good legal advice if you need it. Ask your friends and admirers to refrain from speaking for you at least until they have all the information. Even if you’re not part of an organization, you don’t have to go this alone.

This piece is part of a much larger writing project on handling criticism in the age of social media. Feedback is particularly welcome on these pieces, as I hope to collect and revise all of these to create a resource on the topic. They are not in any particular order at the moment.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    rnilsson

    Very good observations. While I’m certainly not an expert I too get exposed to a stream of news and propaganda (although I try to limit that exposure) and can easily see blunders made every day.

    As for Barilla, we used to buy almost exclusively our Spaghetti #5 from them, until we noticed it no longer had the same texture. A very close scrutiny of the package revealed that it had been produced in Greece instead of Italy as before. Now, we have nothing in particular against Greece nor any spectacular positive bias for Italy as wheat-growing nations, but the quality had obviously changed, with minimal notice to customers.

    Now we buy from another company even though the price is 40% higher. If we wanted cheap we would have bought macaroni in bulk at 10% or noodles at 5% instead. That’s certainly food too, but I resent manipulation.

    And manipulation is what Sr Barilla is peddling here.

  2. 2
    Paladynian

    I understand the reasons behind the suggestion to have someone else respond to criticized speech if possible, but I think that has an equal chance to back-fire.

    Having Person B apologize for something Person A said strikes me (probably irrationally) as an acknowledgement that Person A is not, in fact, sorry, and Person B is simply performing damage control theatre.

    It comes down to the feeling of sincerity, I suppose, and how difficult it is to achieve. Person A apologizing can feel insincere due to the preexisting anger felt towards their statement, as you mention… while Person B apologizing feels insincere due to the separation between the two.

  3. 3
    angharad

    I think I agree with Paladynian, particularly when the offender is an individual or the head of an organization ( which, to be fair, you do note as problematic circumstances). In the case where someone lower down in an organization gives offense I think rectification needs to come from pretty high up. A message from the PR department just seems like spin.

  4. 4
    leftwingfox

    Good post.

    Interesting note here, the week that comment was made, all Barilla pasta at the local grocery store went on a massive sale. Not sure if it was coincidence, or an attempt to block the effects of a possible boycott.

  5. 5
    Chenrezi

    Domino’s did a pretty good job of this when their founder’s contributions to antigay organizations came out, as I recall. Granted, they were pretty lucky in that he was no longer a part of their company and therefore easy to disavow, but they were also very quick on the draw in pointing this out before any damage was done.

  6. 6
    Sata

    “most people had already tuned the company out”

    I think you have a wrong notion of how many people actually think the way you do.

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    Having Person B apologize for something Person A said strikes me (probably irrationally) as an acknowledgement that Person A is not, in fact, sorry, and Person B is simply performing damage control theatre.

    That’s a very good point; though when it’s an organization causing the offense, using a PR agent or other surrogate is more expected, as long as said agent is seen as truly in touch with, and speaking for, the top brass, as opposed to just a low-ranking flunky popping in to spout empty stock phrases.

    A better response would be for person A to do the apologizing, using the expert advice of person B if necessary.

  8. 8
    Al Dente

    From one of Barilla’s apologies:

    I apologize if my words have led to misunderstandings or controversy, and have encroached on the sensibilities of some people.

    No, you do no apologize if you caused offense, you apologize that you caused offense. The first instance puts the onus on the person offended: “If you were so touchy as to be offended then I apologize.” It should be obvious when people are offended, especially if they’re making noises about boycotting your product. There’s no question that people were offended by Barilla’s stated preference for traditional families so his “if” is only passive-aggressive victim blaming.

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    I think you have the wrong notion, Sata, about how I came to that conclusion. I based it off the amount of news coverage the various communications from Barilla received.

  10. 10
    vaffangool

    The support of those who are in accord with the offending statement can doom any turnaround effort to failure . Any response short of a rebuke undermines the appearance of sincerity; any expression of gratitude conflicts with the message of disavowal .

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