Tag Archives: 3M manufacturing council

How 3M’s Inge Thulin Fought The Charlottesville Crisis with Code

14 Sep

Charlottesville Blog.002

       3M’s CEO Inge Thulin recently found himself caught between a meme and a movement.  The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during a neo-Nazi rally and President Trump’s half-hearted condemnation of white supremacists put Thulin and other business leaders in an uncomfortable spotlight with the president generating the wattage.   How to respond to an emerging public relations threat is not just a business decision, it’s also a strategic communication decision.

        Thulin along with 26 CEOs joined Trump’s Manufacturing Council at the beginning of his administration.  For these business leaders, joining the commission not only gave them an important seat at the table in forming government policy that could benefit their core businesses, but it also could provide valuable insights into economic trends and how to strategically position their companies.  There was little to lose.

       Then came Charlottesville.

       The images that spread at the speed of ones and zeros also captured a fractured nation at the speed of smartphones and social media.  President Trump’s ultimate failure to condemn the white supremacists simply fed the outrage.  The business leaders on the president’s manufacturing commission quickly found themselves caught in the contagion.    

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Figure 1

       Knowing how such a contagion starts and evolves is also helpful in navigating a response that protects and elevates a brand.   Social psychologist Jaap Van Ginneken holds that such a coalescence of public opinion forms when diffuse ideas congregate around an idea or strong replicator.  It’s a process he calls entrainment.  In Charlottesville, one of the replicators was the image and video of the car that killed a woman as it was driving through the crowd of those rallying against the white nationalists.   The image forces the viewer to associate the experience with their own closely held beliefs.  The stronger the beliefs, the more likely it will affect their attitude toward action to align themselves with those who share their beliefs, and just and important, align themselves against those who do not. (Figure 1).  It’s classic balance theory.   In this case of entrainment, the image turned viral, a contagion was born, and it coalesced around pop-up movements, vigils, and rallies across the country to denounce the violence in Charlottesville. 

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Figure 2

       For the CEO’s on the president’s commission, the contagion prompted viral petitions for members of the Manufacturing Commission to stand up to President Trump and resign.   3M’s Inge Thulin was among those in the cross hairs.   For most multi-billion dollar corporations, responding to such a crisis typically involves a team of attorneys, advisors and corporate communicators who look at everything from the effect on stock price, supply chain, and potential investor lawsuits.  To complicate matters, Charlottesville happened as 3M shares were already falling on Wall Street.   One question 3M certainly asked itself was whether to associate the fortunes of the company to a president experiencing dismal approval ratings. (Figure 2) 

      It’s complicated.  Thulin made it simple.   He resigned from the commission and announced why on social media.

 

            In making its decision, Thulin and 3M looked no further than their own corporate soul–their code of conduct.  The 3M code spells out in detail the values and expectations of not only its business practices, but how employees are to treat each other.  Among its core principals: be good, be honest, be respectful.  

            Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky made a similar decision.  Gorsky too, leaned on his company’s own credo.  Over the years the J&J credo has famously guided the company in responding to the Tylenol tampering crisis in the 1980’s and other product recalls in 2009 and 20010.  To this day, the J&J credo is considered the gold standard of corporate ethics.  After Gorsky, Thulin and several other CEO’s decided to leave the president’s council, the remaining members dissolved it.

            During a time when a polarized public and consumer attitudes shift like the fog in a crooked canyon, brands and their communicators need a guiding light.  3M had one, and Charlottesville helped its CEO focus the beam.

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