Google’s decisive response to its sexism crisis makes Uber look even more flat-footed (GOOGL)

  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam - RTX369IEUnlike Uber, Google is dealing with its public scandal over sexism well, say branding experts.
  • Google’s response has been swift, decisive and emphatic, while Uber was slow, dismissive and non-responsive.
  • According to experts, the company can become a role model in Silicon Valley and advance dialogue and real actions moving forward.

Google has spent a majority of the past few days on a damage-control spree, after an anti-diversity manifesto by an engineer at the company was leaked this past weekend.

But unlike Uber — which is still recovering from the public maelstrom it found itself in the throes of just a few months ago — the tech giant actually seems to be faring well for itself in its demonstration of “unequivocal” commitment to diversity, say branding experts.

“Google’s response has been swift, decisive and emphatic, while Uber was slow, dismissive and non-responsive,” said Andy Gilman, CEO at crisis communications firm CommCore Consulting Group. “Google pulled the band-aid off very quickly, while Uber did the slow peel, which ended up being much more painful.”

Trouble for the company began late Friday, after a senior engineer’s 10-page anti-diversity manifesto went viral online. The memo criticized Google’s goals to increase gender and racial diversity and also argued that biological differences made women less apt to perform in the tech industry.

Google was quick on its feet, reacting promptly to the intense backlash against the document online, including by many of Google’s own employees.

On Sunday, Google’s head of diversity, Danielle Brown released a memo, followed by CEO Sundar Pichai, who said that the employee had violated the company’s code of conduct in a strongly-worded memo to employees titled “Our words matter.” The engineer, James Damore, has been fired and Pichai has also decided to cut his vacation short, to be part of a scheduled town hall meeting this Thursday.

“There was no time to create a committee to investigate the situation,” said Ben Ricciardi, CEO of branding agency Times10. “In a world that reacts and expects reactions quickly, Google has absolutely done the right thing.”

Google’s swift response may be a calculated PR blitzkrieg, but it stands in stark contrast to Uber’s handling of its own brand crisis, which was too little, too late, said experts. Even as reports of rampant sexual harassment surfaced, Uber took its time in taking the challenge head-on, releasing the results of an intensive, months long investigation, firing more than 20 people and founder Travis Kalanick ultimately stepping down as CEO only months after the crisis first broke.

“In today’s world, there are but two options: swift action or no action — there is no way to just wait for the dust to settle anymore,” said Ricciardi. “Sundar Pichai acted swiftly. To not act would have been to essentially accept the statements of James Damore as fact.”

The controversy also comes at a time when Silicon Valley’s treatment of women has been in the spotlight, following a string of allegations of harassment and discriminations not just at Uber, but also several other high-profile venture capital firms. Google itself is embroiled in a legal dispute with the Department of Labor, which has accused Google of “systemic compensation disparities” between men and women.

To be sure, the nature of Google and Uber’s scandals is slightly different: while Uber faced direct accusations regarding a toxic, sexist work culture, Google’s scandal arose out of an employee being critical of its goals and efforts to increase gender and racial diversity.

Still, against this backdrop, the company’s quick-footed response demonstrates its commitment to culture, said experts. In the face of crisis, brands must not deprioritize culture, respond quickly, appoint the right leaders and cultivate their employees as their key advocates, they said.

“Google’s response and communication strategy is leaps and bounds more effective than Uber’s, driven by response time, accountability and contrition,” said Matt Rizzetta, CEO at brand-communications agency North 6th Agency. “While Uber’s communication strategy waffled and never had any clear and decisive message, Google’s response showed contrition, empathy for its employees and a zero tolerance approach toward sexism in its work culture.”

At the end of the day, it is also just good leadership, said Chris Allieri, founder and principal of the public-relations firm Mulberry & Astor.

“The head of diversity as well as the CEO immediately stepped up,” he said. “This is leadership.”

Google is also faring well in terms of social chatter online. According to data crunched by social analytics company Brandwatch, there have been over 78,000 mentions of the memo online in the past two days. And Google’s general sentiment in the same period is nearly 50/50 split, with 50.2% of the mentions being positive.

It’s worth noting, however, that the sentiment is likely to be more positive than the data shows, as the negative mentions are not necessarily about Google, but about the memo, and its contents. On the other hand, positive mentions are lauding Google for the action it has taken.

The battle is far from over, say experts. This is but one episode, one egregious example of sexism in an industry where it is rampant, said Allieri. Now’s the time for real work that addresses diversity, gender equity and inclusion.

“This episode gives Google — and many other companies that look up to Google as an example — a great platform to advance a dialogue and real actions, to make sure that diversity is integrated into everything they do,” he said. “And that means acting swiftly to come down hard on all forms of harmful stereotypes or prejudice in the workplace — whether it be based on gender, race, handicap, sexual orientation or gender expression.”

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