Lessons learned from Card Factory’s reputational crisis

Card Factory came under fire last month for perceived insensitivity towards diversity of sexuality. Here, Jennifer Janson, chairman of Six Degrees, discusses what businesses can learn from the episode.

Knowing how to handle a reputation crisis is essential for a small business

Knowing how to handle a reputation crisis is essential for a small business

In this SmallBusiness monthly series of ‘Lessons Learned’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle a crisis in the best way possible.

As Pride Month unfolded in the UK, celebrating tolerance and the sexual freedom, the Card Factory got caught up in a tricky situation that put it in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

A woman walked into a Card Factory shop in search of a wedding card for two men she knew who were getting married. Unable to find a suitable card anywhere, she asked for the help of an employee who returned from the stock room with a pile of cards. After the shopper quizzed the customer service representative about why these cards were not on display, the employee answered that they had been removed because customers had complained, much to the outrage of the customer who took to social media to share her anger.

The story picked up pace on social media and resulted in an article in the Daily Mail, followed swiftly by Huffington Post and others.

Such is the risk to business in today’s social media driven world. In the past, this incident may have been shared with tens or hundreds of people. But today – in a matter of hours – it was shared with millions.

So, what can we learn from Card Factory’s unfortunately timed faux pas?

Always act in line with your core values

You’d be right in thinking that this kind of incident is not the usual candidate for a media storm. Thanks to social media though, it snowballed and went straight to the top of the news agenda.

Experience shows that when a company faces a reputational crisis, it has usually been sparked by a disconnect between that company’s values and its behaviour. Interestingly, in last year’s annual report, the Card Factory CEO said, ‘at Card Factory we are committed to delivering excellent value and quality products to our customers – the lifeblood of our business. We understand the importance of showing our customers that we take our corporate and social responsibility seriously’. It is clear in this instance that the customer felt like she was dismissed – and unimportant. And she decided to speak up.

If the Card Factory designs and sells cards celebrating same sex marriage it should not be down to individual retailers as to whether these are displayed or not. It would appear there must be much stronger communication from the above hierarchy.

Own your mistakes

Of course, businesses are built thanks to their teams, but sadly, humans are usually the weakest link when it comes to upholding policies. If one of your employees makes a mistake – own it. Acknowledge that mistakes happen, explain what you are going to do to fix it, and then do what you say you are going to. Don’t look for a scapegoat if it was a genuine mistake. Going silent on the topic, or refusing to address it, is almost always certain to add fuel to the fire.

In this instance, the Card Factory had the right reaction. It was quick, and did not try to make any excuses, simply affirming that it was “committed to equality”. It even took advantage of the situation to announce the release of a new range of same-sex wedding cards, capitalising on brand exposure…and the crisis did not go any further.

Interestingly, in the Card Factory’s own risk analysis (in its 2016 annual report) there is no mention of reputational damage caused by a ‘digital wildfire’. Given that some experts suggest that up to 30 per cent of a company’s value is down to its reputation, this seems remiss.

Understand the context

A sceptical observer might say that this only happened because it was Pride Month, and that the attention of the media – and especially the tabloids – was focused on anything related to the topic. That may well be true. Which is why understanding the context of current events is essential in responding to or addressing a crisis. Perhaps if the Card Factory had been more attuned to current affairs, the importance of keeping all of its cards on the shelves would have been communicated to all the retail outlets long before it became an issue.

This particular example might seem niche and exceptional, but it happened because of social media. Social media is not going anywhere soon and even if your own business is not active on it, it doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it.

Jennifer Janson is author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees. 

Further reading on reputation crises

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