Estée Lauder Crisis Response Is More Than Cosmetic

Thom Weidlich 03.03.22


Estée Lauder was faced with an increasingly common crisis: an executive who does something stupid on social media. The company’s jettisoning of the employee was quick and definitive. It’s an example of a company knowing at least one of its crisis scenarios and being prepared for it.

That the company let the executive go is no small matter. John Demsey (pictured) was an executive group president at the New York-based cosmetics giant, responsible for overseeing its MAC and Clinique brands. He’d reportedly been with Estée Lauder for 31 years and was paid $9.6 million in its most recent fiscal year. So, no small fry. He was, according to The Wall Street Journal, “one of the industry’s highest-profile executives.”

Demsey, who had an Instagram account with 73,000 followers, on Feb. 21 posted a meme with a spoof cover of a Sesame Street book that included Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, the rapper Chingy, a COVID-19 joke and a version of the N-word with some letters replaced with asterisks. The racist post “unleashed a firestorm in the beauty industry,” according to The New York Times.

‘Deeply Ashamed’

On Feb. 22, Estée Lauder said it had suspended Demsey without pay. He tried to apologize on Instagram, saying he didn’t read the meme before posting it. He was “terribly sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said.


This decision is the result of his recent Instagram posts, which do not reflect the values of The Estée Lauder Companies.

— Estée Lauder 

It was apparently not enough. On Feb. 28, the company announced Demsey was exiting. It sent staff a “Dear Colleagues” memo, which was also posted on its website (smart move). The language was frank. Demsey “was informed he must leave the company, effective this week,” it said.

It added, “This decision is the result of his recent Instagram posts, which do not reflect the values of The Estée Lauder Companies, have caused widespread offense, are damaging to our efforts to drive inclusivity both inside and outside our walls and do not reflect the judgment we expect of our leaders.”

‘Racial Equity’

This is a sensitive issue for Estée Lauder. Over the past two years, the company has tried to “advance our approach to racial equity,” the memo said. This was a subtweet-type reference to it being one of the companies targeted by Black Lives Matter protestors two years ago. That was due to board member and son of the founders Ronald Lauder’s support of Donald Trump. In other words, race issues have been a problem for the company. It couldn’t dillydally after Demsey’s post.

A major part of crisis planning is identifying what scenarios your company might be vulnerable to. Because of its recent history, racism was one for Estée Lauder. And it responded appropriately.

Photo Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

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