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What Brands Can Learn From Away's PR Crisis

Away's muddled response to a critical article sparked a weeks-long scandal. Here's how brands can avoid making the same mistake.
Jen Rubio and Steph Korey | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Alexandra Mondalek
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States —  Away was on top of the world. Until it wasn't.

In December, tech publication The Verge published an investigation into Away's company culture, which over a dozen former employees described as varying degrees of toxic. Much of their criticism focused on Founder and Chief Executive Steph Korey, who the employees describe as a tirade-prone micromanager.

Korey, 31, apologised within a day, and stepped down from her role as Chief Executive to assume the title of executive chairman, with former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden tapped to replace her in the top job. The company said these moves were already in motion before the article ran. However, earlier this week Korey said she would stay on as co-Chief Executive alongside Haselden. Korey and Away now say they dispute The Verge's reporting.

Away's dramatic response to the article, and equally dramatic walk back, was unusual, even in the era of call-out culture. But the very public clash between the values outlined in the luggage brand's mission statement and the apparent reality inside its office walls is one that every company must be prepared to face.

Employees feel more empowered to speak their minds, whether it's on social media, in the press or anonymously via sites like Glassdoor. Last year, lingerie startup ThirdLove made headlines when employees alleged in a Vox article that the company's treatment of female employees was at odds with its women's empowerment branding. In December, Vice reported customer-service employees at Everlane were unionising to address low pay and unpredictable schedules.

In a 2019 study, public relations firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that 38 percent of American employees are “activists” who have spoken up in a public forum for or against their company’s actions. That figure rose to nearly half among Millennials.

Consumers are quick to turn on brands that fall short of their stated values. They also have short memories; there is little outward sign that the outrage over workplace culture at ThirdLove or Everlane has hurt those businesses.

“Employees can reveal the underbelly of corporate cultures to... call attention to the dissonance between what companies say about themselves and what it is actually like to work there,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist-in-residence at Weber Shandwick. “Away’s corporate culture got caught up in this vortex of employees speaking up and leadership being held accountable, and we can expect to see this happen repeatedly in the next decade.”

You have to establish how big your problem is and make sure you're not responding to a Twitter mob.

Away’s mistake, in other words, was to give in to external critics too quickly — and then resurrect the story a month later by reversing course. BoF spoke to public relations and crisis communications veterans who have helped clients navigate political scandals and fashion retail controversies about what other brands can learn from Away’s troubles:

The punishment should fit the crime

The Verge's reporting pointed to a dysfunctional corporate culture where employees felt pressured to work long hours and faced public shaming by Korey for seemingly minor mistakes.

"I am sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong, plain and simple," Korey told The New York Times earlier this month, referring to some of the harsher statements she had made on Away's internal Slack channels.

But the decision to immediately step down, without first attempting to defend her actions or make amends, was an overreaction, given that the allegations did not involve sexual harassment or other potentially criminal behaviour, several public relations experts told BoF.

Had Away's Korey waited even a few days, the uproar might have subsided and Away could have gone back to business as usual. ThirdLove Co-Chief Executive David Spector, the alleged bully in Vox's article, remained in his job, for instance.

“What I always tell people when they’re in tough situations is that you have to establish how big your problem is and make sure you’re not responding to a Twitter mob,” said Risa Heller, founder of the eponymous New York-based communications firm. “Instead of doing that, she threw herself (or they threw her) to the wolves."

One mistake led to another. The initial announcement outlining Korey’s ouster was confusing, and treating her unexpected return to the co-CEO role as part of the normal course of business muddled the situation further, said Jon Goldberg, founder of the communications firm Reputation Architects. He described Away’s actions as a “ready, fire, aim strategy.”

Instead, companies need to quickly come up with a plan and stick to it. Away hired an external public relations firm to help deal with the fallout from the article — standard practice for any company facing a media storm. But that’s only the first step.

“The quicker they gain control and start doing things in a logical, decisive manner without backtracking ... the more quickly they will get through this, and with less pain,” Goldberg said. “Every time they change their approach, they change their minds, they try to recant something in a way they think helps them, they’re just bringing the story up again. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”

Attack the problem, not the messenger

Away has disputed The Verge’s reporting, saying the anecdotes included in the article do not reflect the current state of the company’s culture. The start-up has even hired Elizabeth Locke, the defamation lawyer who represented former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo in her successful $3 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine.

An Away spokesperson told BoF the company felt it necessary to address confusion about their strategy moving forward. However, public relations professionals said rehashing a month-old story could be more trouble than it’s worth — even if Away is proven right in the end.

Instead, they said a more effective approach over the long run will be to address any legitimate issues raised by the company’s critics. That will reduce the odds of a second crisis down the line, and ensure the brand’s products remain desirable to consumers.

Trust and reputation is about promises kept, and people are going to be watching for what comes next.

Many companies, when faced with allegations of workplace issues, conduct internal investigations to determine how things got out of hand, and how they can be improved. Thinx, a start-up that sells menstrual underwear, cut ties with founder Miki Agrawal, who employees accused of sexual harassment, and hired a new Chief Executive and added human resources staff. (Agrawal later settled without admitting to wrongdoing, and continues to deny the allegations.)

However, internal investigations only work — from a PR perspective — if all parties agree they are fair and independent. When NBC conducted an internal probe into the behaviour of former Today anchor Matt Lauer, journalist Ronan Farrow called the investigation a “rubber stamp.”

An Away spokesperson told BoF that the company had the kinds of processes in place to prevent the kinds of anecdotes the Verge reported from repeating themselves, including the introduction of leadership career coaching, employee resource groups, and “all the HR-related processes you would expect with a company of a certain size.”

The proof will be in whether Away avoids any further workplace scandals.

“Companies often make the mistake of promising a lot of things and assuming people’s attention will turn to other things in a month, and they think they’ll be off the hook,” Goldberg says. “It doesn’t work that way. Trust and reputation is about promises kept, and people are going to be watching for what comes next.

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