Reputation Management Problems for businesses can get started from a myriad of actions, of which many can be avoided by taking just a second to assess any form of messaging that will find its way into the arena of public opinion. In the case of the Barilla Group and its Chairman Guido Barilla, the outbound messaging that started the recent firestorm of protest against the biggest pasta maker in the world came in the form of an interview on an Italian radio station.
One of the key tenets, in terms of avoiding self-started reputation management problems, is to stay away from politically or culturally divisive issues, even if your fourth generation and privately-held company accounts for approximately 45% of global pasta production. Violating this tenet, as the Barilla Group would soon find out, can quickly result in a growing mass of angry customers and provide competitors with talking points that get the attention of these same customers who are now looking to do business with a different pasta maker.
In the interview in question, Guido Barilla hit the “trifecta” of expressing strong opinions on divisive issues in a public forum when he stated:
* “I would not do a commercial with a homosexual family…”
* "I have no respect for adoption by gay families because this concerns a person who is not able to choose."
* “Our family is a traditional family. If they don’t like that, they will eat someone else’s pasta.”
Despite a quick retraction and apology, Barilla’s sentiments had already run across social media networks at the speed of light and the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending. Simultaneously Bertoli, a major competitor, had quickly implemented advertising and social media campaigns to capitalize on Barilla’s missteps.
As cautionary tales go, the Barilla Group saga follows on the heels of Chick-fil-A, which started their own reputation management firestorm when comments from President Dan T. Cathy on the same topic were made public. The lesson? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on a variety of divisive subjects. Expressing them under the corporate banner, however, can result in reputation management problems that make take a long time to fix.