Corporate writing is notoriously terrible. This isn’t because the people who work for corporations are terrible writers. It’s because the writing that takes place inside big institutions, in the face of a crisis, isn’t written by individuals. It’s written by committees, composed of people with multiple agendas.
The CFO worries about the bottom line. The CEO worries about what the board thinks.
The outside legal counsel tries to minimize any potential legal exposure, and the crisis communication team, hired at great expense, wants to make it clear that the CFO, the CEO, the Board and the outside legal counsel don’t know what they are talking about.
Good things rarely come from a mashup like that, which is why I was so taken by the following bit of corporate writing that popped up recently.The occasion was the disappearance of the top-ranked Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, just after she accused a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault.
The Women’s Tennis Association—the group that governs elite women’s tennis—had just entered into a ten-year deal with the Chinese government, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars and featuring nine tournaments a year, culminating in a season-ending event in Shenzhen.So the WTA was in a bind. What should they do?
They decided to suspend all future tournaments in China and Hong Kong until Shuai’s allegation was properly investigated.The WTA’s chief, Steve Simon, justified the group’s decision with this beautiful bit of explanation:
“I have serious doubts that [Peng] is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. … If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Oh my. Do me a favor? Read that paragraph a second time: simple, clear, courageous.
Now let’s compare what just happened in the world of women’s tennis with what happened just over two years ago in the National Basketball Association.
So here’s my advice to any future CEO caught in a difficult spot.Put your values first. Remember that your obligation is to your own community.
Don’t embarrass yourself in public, in defense of whatever random dictatorship you’ve found yourself in bed with.
When it comes to responding, tell the lawyers and the crisis-managers to stay home, so you have a chance to say what you mean.