By Channing Gatewood
In a time when audiences are becoming increasingly diverse, companies are faced with the challenge of creating content and products that authentically invite those audiences into the brand. Audiences do not want to feel like tokens, but like family members who are understood and respected by the company. However, companies attempt of inclusion – or lack, thereof—can have horrendous results. Take a look at a few recent diversity and inclusion crises that brought negative press to companies who simply should have done a lot more research:
American Red Cross
What happened? During summer 2016, The American Red Cross released an image that was meant to show young swimmers what not to do at the swimming pool in order to stay safe. The idea was good in theory, but the execution—not so much. The poster featured a graphic of multiple children in and around the pool, with indications of “cool” and “not cool” actions. It did not take long for a viewer to realize that the majority of “not cool” actions were being performed by dark-skinned children, while most of the lighter-skinned children were shown behaving properly. See the image below:
The problem: This is a perfect example of a horribly researched image. Regardless of whether or not the incident was purposeful, audiences are not stupid, and it rarely takes long for people to recognize negative stereotypes in content. Instead of simply diversifying the image by placing children of different races in the picture, Red Cross should have reached a step further to consider how those races are represented in the content. Here, the representation is not positive, which defeats the purpose of diversifying the image in the first place.
The response: The American Red Cross issued a public apology for the misunderstanding the poster caused, ensuring that the offensive perception was not intended. It also stated that the company was looking to work with a “diversity advocacy organization” to help steer their actions in the future.
All good now? Hopefully. Hopefully, American Red Cross has learned from this incident, is sincerely working with a new D&I advocacy group as it implied, and is becoming educated on how to research, test, and thoroughly review content before release. If this is true, then the company should be in a good place.
What happened? In December 2016, a past employee of a Versace store claimed that he had been instructed to say “D-410” when black customers entered the store—a code to alert other employees that a black person was present. This employee, who is multiracial, was dismissed two weeks later for what he claims was his inability to understand “luxury.” This story made national news.
The problem: Essentially, the story paints that Versace store manager as an individual who stereotyped black people as “scary” or “threatening.” This narrative makes black audiences feel excluded from the “luxury” that the brand prides itself on, instead of welcoming them in as it should. Why do black customers have a “code” as if employees should be on guard when they arrive? Why was this employee really fired? Why does he supposedly not know luxury? Even if all of these offenses are exclusive to this one location, how has this manager remained in the position for so long?
The response: Versace released a statement on how it embraced diversity, and denied the claims. However, a case status conference is scheduled to take place in a few months to discuss the allegations further.
All good now? Not in my book. In its public response, Versace offered an umbrella statement on diversity, but then followed that statement by bluntly denying the allegations. Had the company implied it would look deeper into that store’s management, or seek further discussion with the ex-employee, it would have at least shown more concern for getting to the root of the situation. Even if it did look further, the public does not know this, and the cold response gives off a borderline arrogant air. Looking forward to what comes of the March conference.
What happened? On Veterans Day 2016, Chili’s restaurants across the country offered US veterans a free meal. All was well for one veteran, Ernest Walker, who walked in and had already received his free meal until a nearby white customer—also a veteran—demanded that this man could not actually have been a veteran, since “people like him” were not allowed to serve in Germany (likely a reference to the world wars, in which African Americans actually did serve, though segregated from white soldiers). Walker, however, had been stationed in Hawaii during the 1980s. The problem was not to blame on Chili’s, though, until this customer involved the manager who ultimately took away Walker’s meal—essentially siding with the angered customer.
The problem: Without enough evidence to prove that Walker was not a Veteran (and without subjecting the complaining customer to similar interrogation to prove his right to free food), the manager placed blame on Walker to beginning the conflict, sided with a bigoted customer, and denied Walker his right for a meal he certainly deserved. The incident received national attention, with many individuals claiming that they would no longer eat at the restaurant.
The response: Chili’s not only issued a public apology, but the company president claimed that Walker received a personal apology and a thank you for his service. The company also ensured that the manager of that particular Chili’s location had been quickly dismissed from that restaurant.
All good now? The company could have done a bit more for Walker, who experienced terrible service from the store’s manager, such as offering at least a few months of free meals. The public was not informed of a long-term reward for Walker of this type. However, the company did take responsibility for the offense, and took action by firing the manager. Moving forward, Chili’s will need to keep special watch on its managers and employees following this incident, but since this is the only incident of its kind, the company may be okay as long as that manager never returns to the chain.
What happened? In late 2016, Dr. Tamika Cross, an African American physician, was dismissed by a flight attendant on the plane as Cross tried to resuscitate a passenger who had become unconscious. Though Cross repeatedly made it known to the flight attendant that she was a certified physician, the attendant continued to dismiss her until no other physician could be found on the plane.
The problem? Racial bias. The attendant instantly assumed that Cross was not actually a doctor, and had no other reason to believe so than by an aspect of her appearance—likely her skin tone, as Cross recalled a white male (sometime after she had tried to help) came forward claiming he was also a doctor, and proceeded to help the patient without questions from the flight attendant. In short, the flight attendant should have taken Cross seriously, and at most, asked for some type of credentials. Instead, she belittled Cross by not believing her claims of being a doctor, and only after Cross’s persistence did the attendant ask for more information.
The response: A Delta spokesperson responded: “Discrimination of any kind is never acceptable. We’ve been in contact with Dr. Cross and one of our senior leaders is reaching out to assure her that we’re completing a full investigation.” While this was a nice statement for the moment, Delta’s best response occurred in December, when it altered its written policies to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future: “The company said in a statement this week that effective Dec. 1, Delta flight attendants are no longer required to verify medical credentials. Medical professionals will now be allowed to help based on his or her statement that the individual is indeed a physician, physician assistant, nurse, paramedic or EMT.”
All good now? For the most part, yes. The alteration of its policy showed that Delta was serious about getting its employees’ behavior right. This made the company’s response go from a common blanket statement to action that can be enforced by the company and hold its employees accountable. In the future, it would be interesting to hear more details about the “inclusion training” that the company also claimed it would start, and how other companies may be able to benefit from similar programs.
It is unrealistic to expect that companies will never make mistakes, especially when so many companies are not led by a diverse team of people with a wide range of experiences and identities. However, in my opinion, the biggest damage is done when companies not only make the mistake, but do not take full responsibility for them and show interest in prevention. In the cases above, some companies did well here—such as Delta Airlines. However, other companies have a way to go and need to seriously reevaluate their diversity and inclusion approaches, which may come in the form of hiring D&I directors, or bringing in focus groups to examine products or content before they are released.
With more caution, attention, and most importantly education about the demographics they serve, companies should begin to create products, content, and services that not only satisfy their audiences, but make those audiences feel welcomed, noticed, and appreciated.