One day after a television ad featuring GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's endorsement of him began to air, Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock publicly said that when a woman becomes pregnant after a rape, "that's something God intended."
This puts Romney in a now-familiar bind—needing to do damage control after one of his allies goes public with a statement that many people find offensive. (The first was the Todd Akin comment that women who are raped rarely get pregnant.) It's a situation corporate leaders also have faced, and it can impact everything from share price to employee engagement.
Here's what happened this time. At a debate Tuesday night, when asked about whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, Mourdock said: "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Social-media response was immediate and unforgiving. Romney's campaign had to act quickly, since this pronouncement came so soon after Romney's ad supporting Mourdock.
"There's so much at stake. I hope you'll join me in supporting Richard Mourdock for U.S. Senate," Romney says in the spot, paid for by the Mourdock campaign.
After Mourdock's comment, Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul issued a terse statement saying Mourdock's comments "do not reflect" Romney's views. But the Romney campaign has not yet pulled the ad. Watch it below.
In 1996, when Texaco executives were caught on tape making racist remarks, the company's stock price plummeted by double digits in one day, it had to pay $140 million in a discrimination lawsuit—and its reputation has never recovered.
More recently, documents in another discrimination lawsuit reveal that the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch demands that his all-male flight crew wears boxer briefs, A&F cologne and flip-flops.
What's most important for corporate leaders facing public furor over potentially offensive actions and statements is clarity of values, from the start, and clear and constant communications about those values.
So first, always be very transparent about your values of respect and inclusivity. Look at this quote from Steve Howe, area managing partner – Americas, Ernst & Young (No. 5 on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) as an example:
"I can tell you that we truly do believe that inclusiveness is critical. It's critical to us performing at a consistent, exceptional level all around the globe. It makes us better, more insightful; it helps us solve problems, manage risk and seize opportunities that much better. And we believe that driving multicultural teams is an absolute must."
Second, act quickly and decisively and disassociate your organization and your leadership from what has been said/done.
Corporate advertisers have quickly dropped organizations and individuals who have made racist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory statements. Earlier this year, advertisers bailed on Rush Limbaugh's radio show after he called a female student a "slut" and "prostitute" for advocating women's reproductive rights. And when ABC came under fire for a television show that offended Latinos, lesbians and transgender people, it quickly dropped the program.
Governor Romney quickly went public to say he disagreed with Mourdock's statement, but his ad is still running. We will keep you updated if that changes.