Since I was asked to comment on the flap involving Comcast and pulled (then restored) funding for a small Seattle non-profit over a critical tweet, I thought I’d share some thoughts here. Washington Post ran a story on this because it involves a Republican member of the FCC board who ruled on the Comcast/NBC merger, then recently announced she was going to work with Comcast as a lobbyist.
Someone from the Seattle-based Reel Grrls, which runs video camps for girls, tweeted that they were aghast at the actions of the FCC commissioner. And a local executive, who I assume had authority over dispersing locally designated contributions, reacted in anger and sent Reel Grrls a message that Comcast was withdrawing the $18,000 per year they contribute to the camps.
Comcast is the big (often disliked) cable provider in this area and Lynnwood is about 45 minutes from my house, so this is especially interesting.
Here is a situation that crisis communication pundits have warned about for some time regarding the new crisis vulnerabilities due to the internet and particularly social networking. Essentially I see it as a story of a Comcast regional executive not understanding how his actions can affect the whole company, indeed the brand. It’s easy to understand his pique. It’s easy to understand his not really thinking through the implications of his action. I’m assuming that he had the authority to make decisions about local funding which would be typical for a company like this with strong local presence. He just didn’t expect that his action in pulling funding would go viral and put Comcast in such a negative light.
He saw the tweet from Reel Grrls, it ticked him off. His first thought was to “punish” them by withdrawing funding. He never had the second thought about if someone is going to tweet about what they see as a conflict of interest between government regulator and a giant corporation, what they might do in reaction to the pulled funding. Comcast was right to restore the funding and apologize. I would question their statement about “unauthorized action of our employee.” I’m guessing it was authorized based on local authority to contribute to local causes. If that is the case, I think it is a mistake because while it helps separate the company from an employee who made a bad decision, if it is not honest it undermines their credibility.
The real lesson here is about the new vulnerability. I think senior executives in companies like Comcast should take your report and analysis on this and forward it to all their employees with the message: Please think through your actions before taking them. Understand that virtually everyone you deal with has the ability to communicate with hundreds, thousands and millions. Be aware of sensitivities. Use common sense and know that everything we do as a company is fully transparent.”
One concern I have is that companies will react to this kind of threat by trying to consolidate decision-making at HQ, including things like local community contributions. That would be a big mistake. Better to hire good employees and help employees they have understand these vulnerabilities.
What should Comcast do now? Monitor. They apologized, restored funding, and blamed a rogue employee. I question that last part, but they should continue to say it is not Comcast’s policy to punish those groups we may disagree with by pulling their funding. We are sorry that message was conveyed by this action and we are working to make sure all our employees and executives understand our community contribution policies.