The cure for corporate black eyes

PR disasters show need for local managers to have authority to quickly reverse bad decisions

By Todd Humber (

Enough, already.

There’s a formula out there that too many organizations are following on the PR front that’s just not working. The script usually plays out like this:

Step 1: The company makes a bad decision.

Step 2: Said decision draws the ire of customers and the public.

Step 3: A company manager is dismissive of the complaints.

Step 4: The bad decision makes headlines on the evening news.

Step 5: A company “spokesperson” defends said bad decision.

Step 6: After a huge uproar, the company backs down and reverses its bad decision.

A member of the Korean Salvation Army uses a bell to draw attention on a street in central Seoul on Dec. 1. The Salvation Army's bells fell silent at the Eaton Centre in Toronto because the mall's owners were concerned about noise. (Photo: Truth Leem/Reuters)

Let’s plug in some real life examples. Playing the role of the organization making a bad decision this time is the Eaton Centre, the iconic shopping centre in downtown Toronto.

The bad decision: Not letting Salvation Army volunteers raising money ring their bells because of concerns over noise.

The ban, which had quietly been in effect for years, got noticed this holiday season. And the company that owns the mall — Cadillac Fairview — was bombarded.

“We’re getting hate mail and people saying they won’t shop here.  Holy cow,” spokesman Brian O’Hoski told the Toronto Star. “This was an arrangement that was made several years ago and I didn’t even know it was an issue. I’ve been blindsided by this.”

Yet, despite saying that, Cadillac Fairview didn’t offer to immediately reverse the policy. Instead, it defended it. It pointed out that the Salvation Army raised quite a bit of money at the Eaton Centre. Fair enough, but the Salvation Army said ringing the bell would help them raise more money.

So the Eaton Centre stood firm on a silly policy and got a black eye.

And a couple of days later, after more public outcry and negative press, it inevitably reversed the policy. The bells are now ringing again at the Eaton Centre.

The same problem plays out every November, as some store somewhere won’t allow veterans to sell poppies on company property.

There’s a role for HR professionals here — they need to ensure local managers are empowered to make decisions to reverse poor policies on the spot. The kerfuffle at the Eaton Centre would have been nothing if its spokesperson had just said, “Wow. I didn’t know we were banning them. We’ll get that fixed ASAP.”

Because the outcome here — and in every story that follows this script — is inevitable. The policy will have to be changed. So why not avoid getting a black eye in the process?

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit


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