Noblesse Oblique

February 4, 2014


To whom is in charge;

Your company deserves all the success in the world and a loyal following that loves your offering and keeps on coming back for more. But sometimes things go wrong. Your product or service can have a malfunction, it may be improperly used. This can be your fault, it can be someone else’s. And while you figure that out, the pressure may rise for you to give a comment.

Do you speak? I recommend you do. And do so quickly. As the saying goes “if you’re not in the kitchen, you’re on the menu.” You won’t want others to take the story away from you. But what do you say? Let me share an example from some of your peers.

The accident was tragic, the scene full of devastation and the cause too-soon-to-call, as two CEO’s arrived at the site of a train crash. One represented the rails, the other the train. Their initial reactions came from both ends of the spectrum, as one passionately said “I can only imagine what the passengers went through” while the other stumbled with “I cannot yet say who’s responsible.” Which had the relatively easier time moving forward, do you think?

Another example, closer to home as you may be a parent.  To end the constant bickering and arguing between his two children, after having listened to multiple variations of the same theme [“but he started!”] over and over again, the father decidedly said: “I don’t care who began, I want to know who will stop.” An interesting intervention, wouldn’t you say?

The French but rather universal expression Noblesse Oblige means the moral obligation to those in a powerful position to act with honor and grace. When your company is facing adversity, you will have to flex your muscles. People look at you to make it go away, to calm everyone down, to lead everything back to business as usual.

Understandably, you will have to deal with a particular tension; your responsibilities don’t always coincide with your interests. And your interests don’t always rhyme with the public’s expectations. It also may take some time to gather all the facts. And thanks to social media, opinions move a great deal faster than facts. That’s often how things get out of shape, distorted, oblique. But let’s be clear; there’s nothing oblique about noblesse.

Which makes what you say even more important. You may take a position to “vigorously defend our product”, but do you actually say that? And when you are still gathering the facts, will you describe the situation as “likely to have a minor impact”? Or volunteer numbers that you cannot yet verify and may have to retract? Or put the blame on someone else? Your initial statement can broaden a crisis. Yet without any admission of guilt, your initial statement can also enhance your reputation.

If your product or service is related to an incident, show empathy for the people who are affected. If you need time to find out what really happened, state which actions you are taking to ensure it never happens again. If it is true, describe how this was an isolated incident that is out of line with your usual stringent quality control measures.

Act like a responsible parent, speak like a noble guardian. You owe it to your brand, and to those it touches.

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