“I would never do (a TV commercial) with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role… I think we want to talk to traditional families.”

With that off-hand statement in a radio interview last September, Guido Barilla, CEO of pasta manufacturer Barilla, set his 8,000-employee, $4 billion company ablaze.

Barilla bonfire
(Source: Know Your Meme)

With outrage amplified across Facebook and Twitter, Barilla’s stumble into the same-sex marriage debate ignited an inferno of negative media attention that morphed into calls for a boycott of what was termed “hate pasta.” The New York Post quipped, “His company still makes fusilli and elbows, but the head of Barilla has made it clear he prefers his pasta straight.”

The blaze became full-on immolation when Barilla proclaimed, if gays “like our pasta and our advertising, they’ll eat our pasta, if they don’t like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.” Those comments led the head of Italy’s gay rights group to say, “We accept the invitation from the Barilla owner to not eat his pasta.” Adding fuel to the fire, clever social media marketers at rivals Buitoni and Bertolli took to social media to promise that they believed in “Pasta For All,” with the coup de gras of, “Bertolli welcomes everyone, especially those with an empty stomach.”

Mr. Barilla is a member of the newest class of CEOs who have seen political statements entangle their entire company, its brands and products in unwelcome backlash. For example, many consumers were not pleased when President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was hammered by Papa John’s CEO/founder John Schnatter, Cheesecake Factory CEO David Overton and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who compared Obamacare to “fascism” and “socialism,” but then was forced to express “regret” in the face of consumer threats to boycott the grocery chain.

So what lessons can a CEO – and the corporate communications and marketing professionals who advise them – learn from the accidental brand suicide of Guido Barilla? We asked our friend, Minneapolis-based crisis counselor Jon Austin, the former managing director of corporate communications for Northwest Airlines, to share his insights. Here are 7 lessons Barilla Pasta’s crisis teaches communicators about protecting your CEO’s brand:

1. Speaking Off The Top Of Your Head Will Get That Head Removed

“Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum (BP), said one line in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, but that one line was enough to get him fired,” recalls Austin. The offending sentence by the CEO: “I’d like my life back.” Austin says Hayward’s BP incident, like that of Barilla, underscores that business leaders can never go off message, even in the most benign or obscure interviews.

“I’ve angered CEOs dozens of times by asking an obnoxious question during media training like, ‘In your latest filing with the SEC, you made $5 million in salary and $25 million in stock grants; how can you justify that level of compensation, particularly when your stock is performing so poorly,” says Austin. “Usually, a CEO’s first answer to a question like that will be something reasonably on-message like, ‘I don’t set my compensation, it’s set by the Board.’ If you press them, though, with a series of follow-ups along the lines of, ‘Your compensation is 16,000 times what you pay starting employees; isn’t that an obscenity?’ then ‘Boom!’ they almost always lose it and get angry.

When that happens you have a teachable moment – even if you have to chase them down the hall to make it.”

(Source: JAustinGroup.com)

Jon Austin insists CEOs prepare for these sorts of dangerous off-topic questions even if they have no relation to the interview topic. “You have to be ready for the interview to go off-topic because of breaking news, because of hidden agendas or because of poor communications between your people and the reporter,” warns Austin. “You might get asked about same-sex marriage, about Obamacare, the situation in Syria or NSA spying. Being ready for those questions doesn’t mean you have to memorize a substantive policy position on every possible issue, but it does mean knowing what to do when the focus of the interview drifts into other areas.”

As an example, Austin said that Barilla’s CEO could have avoided the danger of the question about same-sex marriage with a response along the lines of, “We’re always looking at our marketing to make sure it reflects our customers, but we’ve also been looking at how to make our pastas even better for everyone who loves to eat. That’s why I’m so excited to tell your listeners about…”

“When an interview strays off the topics you’ve agreed upon for the interview, it’s up to you – not the reporter, not the PR staffer – to get the interview back on topic,” says Austin. “CEOs do that by knowing what they want to say and by using rhetorical devices to steer the conversation back to where they want it to be.”

2. Consider The Cost Of Writing Off A Consumer Segment

Back in the 1990s, NBA star Michael Jordan declined to endorse the Democratic Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina. His justification? “Republicans buy sneakers too,” said Jordan. What the basketball star understood was something that even sophisticated companies forget: involving a brand in politics can come with a cost.

How will non-gay consumers respond in the countries Barilla markets its pasta? Consider, when polled by Harris Interactive/Witeck Combs communications, 42 percent of heterosexual consumers said they’d be less likely to purchase a product from a business if it advertised alongside a program that expressed anti-gay or lesbian views.

“Even if you’re a privately-held company like Barilla, which gives you latitude that a publicly held company does not have, if you sell a consumer product, you live at the sufferance of your consumer,” notes Austin.

“If you step into a controversy like Barilla did, it creates friction among consumers who might buy your product. There are people in my Minneapolis neighborhood who will never go into a Chick-fil-A, because they don’t like the politics of the chain’s President Dan Cathy. Guido Barilla has every right to his position on any issue he cares about, but those positions are not without costs. You have to ask yourself, ‘Is the lost consumer goodwill and revenue from taking a stand on a controversial issue a cost your company is willing to bear?’ The answer might be ‘Yes,’ if you are espousing a value that aligns with your corporate philosophy. But be smart and deliberate about it. Think it through. Don’t wander into a third-rail debate like gay marriage because your CEO made a thoughtless answer.”

3. Make It A Real Apology

How credible is the person who kicks you in the knee and apologizes by saying, “I’m sorry if you feel that my action in shattering your knee hurt you.” Chances are such an “apology” would only make you angrier.

Such was the case with Barilla, where the company and its CEO apologized for offending people’s “sensibilities” and expressed remorse “if my words generated misunderstandings or controversy or if they hurt some people’s feelings.” Ultimately, Barilla posted a 44-second video apology in which Mr. Barilla confessed to being depressed and saddened that consumers took offense.

Austin is critical of Barilla’s muddled excuses: “Barilla’s apology came off as, ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended.’ If you reduce his apology to its essence, it’s saying that the person who is offended has a problem, but the source of that problem isn’t my words but instead your perception of them. That kind of apology will never – and should never – satisfy consumers.”

[Editor’s Note: See our June, “Apology Accepted: 11 Tips For Responding to A Crisis” post for more tenets of a good CEO apology.]

4. No Interview Is Too Small To Go Viral

Guido’s explosive interview was not with the New York Times, but instead took place on a low-profile radio show on Italy’s Radio 24. In our current content sharing media environment, any interview your company executives gives – no matter how obscure the media outlet – can be picked up, distributed globally, and, in Barilla’s case, be the subject of thousands of negative tweets many with the #BoycottBarilla hashtag.

The firestorm over the CEO of Papa John’s opposition to Obamacare? It was based on remarks made by John Schnatter not in the Wall Street Journal, but to a small auditorium of students at Edison State College in Naples, Florida.

5. Subtleties Can Be Lost Online

What Papa John’s Schnatter actually said about Obamacare was more nuanced than what was attributed to him; but the echo chamber of social media and the impact of news aggregation has the effect of amplifying – and distorting – seemingly innocent statements.

Schnatter himself admitted that his mundane remarks to students caused Papa John’s to be characterized as “a reactionary corporate behemoth scheming to slash worker hours, jack up pizza prices and abandon stores to avoid the burden of offering health insurance.”

Schnatter’s actual words in Florida were that if his independent franchisees cut employees down to 34 hours a week (so they would not have to pay for health insurance) he’d understand because “it’s common sense. It’s what I call lose-lose.”

Similarly, the less controversial comments by Barilla on the same Italian radio show were not reported widely – that he respects same-sex marriage although the CEO balked at adoption in gay families, seesawing with the words, “I believe it’s very hard to raise kids in a same-sex couple.”

6. Stop The Bleeding

In the wake of its CEO’s statement to Radio 24, Barilla issued a written apology, followed by a video apology, and then had a meeting with gay rights groups – a long, painful march of contrition.

“My strongest advice is for companies to not be incremental in fixing a crisis,” said Austin.  “Lots of companies try to put a band aid over the wound during a controversy. When the band aid is not sufficient to stop the bleeding, they put a tourniquet on it. When the bleeding continues, they try to suture it. And then, finally, they need to amputate the limb and that action – finally! – seems to end the cycle of pain. Unfortunately, however, even though the company has done the right thing, the agony has gone on for so long they don’t get the credit for it!  Instead, the commentators will say – with some justification – that the company took the final, effective step as a result of ‘pressure.’”

Far better, Austin said, for marketers and communicators to anticipate how the story is going to play out and get there first. Doing so is not always easy and often requires a leap of faith that your advice as a communicator will be proven correct.

“Incrementalism is the default ‘safe’ position in lots of organizations,” Austin says, “Most often, the CEO or general counsel will say something to the effect of, ‘Our situation is not that bad, it’s only a couple of people or one blog post complaining. It will blow over.’ That’s a normal reaction taken by many corporations, not to take any step that isn’t absolutely required. It’s the safe way to do things and, in many cases, the wrong way. You need to make a persuasive case of breaking away from incrementalism – an approach that Barilla clung to with each succeeding, defensive statement – and do something bold to make things right with consumers.”

7. Finally – Sip a Latte and Watch The Master

Perhaps the best CEO to watch for lessons in defusing backlash over political stands is Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. Witness how gracefully the coffee magnate responded to issues from the passage of the Affordable Care Act, (Schultz was quoted as saying, “There’s no plan that would be a perfect plan, but the intent of the bill and the heartfelt commitment to insure the uninsured is the right approach”) to his masterful choreography in his open letter weighing in on the issue of patrons bringing guns into coffee shops. He announced Starbucks’ “respectful request that customers no longer openly bring firearms into our stores.”

In what at first appeared to be a crisis relating to gun rights, Schultz came out on top as he insisted, “I want to make it very clear that Starbucks is not a policy maker and as a company we are not pro- or anti-gun.”

Schultz’s thoughtful comments actually caused one gun advocate to be quoted as saying, “I think Starbucks’ request was not unreasonable,” in a Washington Times story miraculously titled, “Gun owners surrender to Starbucks, respect anti-firearms policy.”

7 Lessons Barilla Pasta’s Crisis Teaches Communicators

The ultimate lessons to draw from the agony of Guido Barilla and the ecstasy of Howard Schultz? As a CEO engaging with public issues:

  1. Do it in a way that you won’t have to apologize for after.
  2. Don’t speak off the cuff.
  3. Be thoughtful.
  4. Consider how you might respond to potential backlash.
  5. Anticipate that your words will likely be distorted online.
  6. Let your company’s values be your guide.
  7. And, if you do ultimately need to apologize, mean it!