At the Cannes Film Festival last week, actress Sharon Stone responded to a question about the recent Chinese earthquake – which killed more than 69,000 people – by stating, “I'm not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else. And the earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, is that karma? When you're not nice, [do] bad things happen to you?”
The comment quickly coalesced with other elements to create a perfect (communications) storm so powerful that it caused an international fashion house to drop her as the face of its brand in China.
Despite her eventual apology and questionable interpretation of karma, Christian Dior correctly moved to minimize the risks to its reputation in China – arguably the fastest-growing market for its products. Stone left the fashion giant no choice – as keeping her on would be tantamount to an endorsement of her wildly inappropriate comments.
But beyond celebrity foot-in-mouth syndrome, what are the other lessons here?
Know who all the “faces” are. As even simple public relations campaigns can quickly take on a multinational or global scale, the “face” of a company or a client multiplies rapidly. Gone are the days when only statements from senior leadership or high-profile spokespeople gained traction. In today's environment, any employee's or corporate representative's words can ricochet rapidly through blogs and other on-line forums. Before you know it, Jill from Accounting who believes in unicorns, can be quoted as your brand expert on even arcane business matters.
Etiquette is currency of the land. As companies market their products on foreign soil, what may pass as acceptable in their homeland may be completely insensitive in other countries. You might rest a leg on a knee in a business meeting in New York City, but showing the sole of your shoe in most Arab cities is generally considered offensive. Sensitivity training for spokespeople in other countries can go a long way to eliminating the threat of compromising your brand.
“Celebrity” does not necessarily mean “expert.” Media training in the case of celebrity or high-profile endorsers might stop them from mangling the definition of “karma” or other ideals cherished by the foreign populace. Even if a regrettable incident occurs and the company must apologize, it can always state that it took sincere steps to preempt and prevent such bad behavior.
As celebrity endorsers and corporate representatives take on a greater role in integrated marketing/communications campaigns, businesses now have many faces that speak on their behalf – all of whom need to remember that they represent the company at all times. And in a burgeoning international marketplace, it's more important than ever that they keep their views on international issues to themselves.
Globalization means that companies must ensure that all spokespeople are sensitized to relevant cultural issues. The small cost of appropriate sensitivity and media training is grossly outweighed by the larger cost of a celebrity endorser gone awry.
Steve Ellis is a SVP of crisis and business communications firm Levick Strategic Communications. He heads Levick's International Practice group.