Ad Agency Confronts Do-or-Die Crisis
The Richards Group, a major U.S. independent ad agency, is facing a catastrophe that shows two important aspects of crisis communications: A relatively discrete incident can explode into a major negative episode, and a big goal in crisis response is to show you’re doing something, not just talking or making symbolic gestures.
Ad Age broke the story Oct. 13, reporting that agency founder Stan Richards (pictured) made racial comments during an internal meeting concerning longtime client Motel 6. Specifically, Richards complained that a proposed campaign was “too Black” (meaning too many Black people were in it) for the motel company’s “white supremacist constituents,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
Major advertisers announced they were dropping the Richards Group, which is based in Dallas and has about 650 employees. These included Motel 6 (reportedly a client for more than three decades), Home Depot (more than two decades), Keurig Dr Pepper, the H-E-B grocery chain and the Salvation Army. Stan Richards said the agency has lost 40 percent of its business since the incident, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
The Richards Group’s first response was to put out several statements apologizing for the incident and also trying to clarify the comments.
If this was a publicly held company, I’d be fired for the comments I made. But we’re not public, so I am firing myself.
— The Richards Group Founder Stan Richards
Stan Richards, 87, explained that he thought the campaign “was not multiculturally inclusive enough” and that he regretted using the phrase “too Black.” “Those words were said innocently, but they were hurtful to members of our staff,” he said. “I have apologized for that, as I should have. Having spent much of my adult life fighting prejudice, I should have known better.”
Principal and Creative Director Glenn Dady admitted in a statement that the agency’s “brand has been tarnished.” “We understand and regret the pain and concerns of all those who were deeply troubled by the words our founder spoke,” he wrote. “He can’t take them back. We can only ask for forgiveness and promise to learn and be better.”
In addition to releasing statements, the agency acted. Most dramatically, on Oct. 15, it announced Stan Richards had stepped down from the firm. “If this was a publicly held company, I’d be fired for the comments I made,” the press release — cheekily headlined “Stan Richards Fires Self” — quoted him. “But we’re not public, so I am firing myself.” The firm also announced six new initiatives including appointing a position for diversity, reviewing its policies and conducting bias training.
Are these empty gestures? Frankly, people take these responses both ways (some people are cynical), but you must show you’re doing something to address a crisis. Stan Richards leaving the agency he created particularly demonstrates taking responsibility.
It is a serious situation. A follow-up Ad Age story was headlined “Can the Richards Group Recover From a Week of Catastrophe?”
One annoying aspect of the affair, however, is that, while the agency’s messaging seemed sincere, it was mainly scattered in media reports. No statement is posted on its social media (the agency last tweeted Oct. 8). Dady’s statement pops up when you visit its website, but doesn’t have its own URL. The Oct. 15 release is on the site, but it’s hard to find.
It’s as if the Richards Group doesn’t want to make a permanent record concerning what will probably be the greatest crisis it will ever face.
Photo Credit: Richards Group/Google Cache
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