Careless Word Choice: When the CEO Has Foot-in-Mouth Disease

April 9, 2014

It seems like there’s a contest going on these days to see what executive or leader can say the dumbest, meanest or most insensitive thing. 

For now, at least, my money is on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. It’s difficult to top his contributions in quantity or originality, some of which have graphic sexual connotations that are too unpleasant to repeat.

However, one of his declarations is especially notable: After many denials, Ford finally admitted that he had used crack cocaine. Then he made matters worse when he tried to justify the action, saying that this probably occurred during “one of my drunken stupors.” There isn’t anything like a steady hand at the wheel.

When reporters asked Ford why he initially denied using crack when they had questioned him about it earlier, the mayor said he would have admitted it but “the media didn’t ask the right questions.”

What was the right answer? “I should have admitted it in the first place.”

Foot-in-mouth disease is also a common affliction of some business leaders. A cardinal rule of business is this:

Never insult the customer.

Yet some CEOs can’t seem to resist doing it. Here are some recent examples from the past year:

  • Michael O’Leary, CEO of the Irish discount airline Ryanair, declared that customers who showed up at an airport without a boarding pass were “stupid.” What triggered his ire? A woman who made a big fuss on Facebook about being charged nearly $400 to print her family’s Ryanair boarding passes at the airport.
  • Guido Barilla, head of the Italian pasta maker, said that if the gay community didn’t like his position against same-sex marriage, then they could stop eating his pasta. Several leaders of gay groups said that they planned to take him up on his offer.
  • Lululemon founder Chip Wilson had to apologize after he insinuated that some of his customers were too heavy for his $100 yoga pants. The ensuing backlash caused the company’s share price to drop 8 percent.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries said that he only wants his company to market to “cool, good-looking people.” I’m afraid that leaves most of us out, Mike.
  • Co-CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, compared the Affordable Care Act to “fascism” in a 2013 NPR interview. The backlash from his progressive-minded customer base was huge.
  • AOL CEO Tim Armstrong made the “Loose Lips A-list” in early February when he tried to justify cutting back employee benefits because, he said, the company had to pay $1 million each to save the lives of two “distressed babies” of AOL employees. A firestorm followed, and he had to eventually reverse his policy.

Tone-deaf symptoms

Careless words can garner a lot of headlines, especially when they come off as self-pitying by the wealthy. AIG CEO Bob Benmosche likened the criticism of banker bonuses to the lynching of African-Americans in the Deep South, declaring that outrage over these rewards “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses…sort of like what we did in the Deep South (decades ago).” Benmosche later apologized but refused to resign.

Billionaire investor Sam Zell insulted 99 percent of the population by declaring that “the 1 percent work harder” than the rest of us. Try telling that to a construction worker laboring in 90-degree heat.

Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins also sees the superwealthy 1 percent in the Silicon Valley as victims. He compared antitech demonstrators to Nazis and suggested that we might be heading toward a new Kristallnacht — the night Hitler’s troops attacked Jewish residents and their businesses in parts of Germany and Austria in November 1938.

Communications cures

What advice should PR counselors give their shoot-from-the-hip bosses or clients?

  • Think before you speak.
  • Consider whom you might offend.
  • Consult with your PR counsel before making any strong statements.
  • Stay on top of current issues and tread softly.
  • Be ready to defend yourself or apologize for whatever you say.
  • Avoid colorful metaphors, as they will stick in people’s minds forever.


Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email:


Arthur J. Aiello, II says:

Excellent advice, Virgil. I'd suggest that there is another issue to consider, as well--the fact that these senior-most leaders are allowed to keep their jobs with no sanctions after their gaffes. I posted the following comment (with some edits) in response to a post about the Chip Wilson gaffe on the Mr. MediaTraining blog ( It concerns the fact that, if a PR person were to make a similarly bad comment in public, s/he would be sacked, whereas CEOs are allowed to keep their jobs because they can: One of the issues I see with apologies like this is that they’re allowed to be made at all. There are endless case studies of lower-level employees responsible for public relations or social media who make similar gaffes on behalf of the companies or brands they represent and are immediately sacked while senior management explains their transgressions as “appalling” and “not in keeping with our values” as an organization. Yet a man like Chip Wilson–-who is not only the founder of Lululemon but the chairman of the board–-is allowed to make a very public gaffe and simply say that he’s “really sad” about the effects of his comments while “taking full responsibility” for what has occurred. I’m sure that any number of PR pros who have lost their jobs because they used poor judgment in the line of duty were similarly sad, and similarly took full responsibility for their actions, but were nonetheless ousted because of their errors–and because they could be ousted. Rob Ford is allowed to lie about drug use, later apologize for it, and even later be caught making death threats in a drunken rage, and is still allowed to be the chief executive for the largest city in Canada. This is the problem–-that executives are in fact not being held to a higher standard than their employees, and do not suffer the same sanctions that others below them would suffer were they to make the same mistakes. That is what makes these apologies hollow. Watch Chip Wilson make his apology. You’ll see his eyes stray below the screen to what are likely notes he’s referring to in his presentation. Notes that most likely were drafted by a PR professional dutifully tasked with helping him repair his and his company’s reputation. A PR professional who would nonetheless find him/herself on the outside looking in if s/he said in public what Chip Wilson said. A terrible and regrettable double standard.

April 29, 2014

Kathleen Lewton, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Virgil, bless you for pulling these classics together in one source. One has to feel sorry for the PR people who try to manage CEOs with congenitally flapping lips (usually also symptomatic of an excess of hubris). I used to suggest keeping a role of duct tape handy, but give these guys a mini-keyboard and they are lethal. (Perhaps confiscating their electronic toys?) Great article on a grey day while contemplating a snowstorm on the busiest travel day of the year . . . . .

Nov. 25, 2014

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of five circles) + (image of seven circles) + (image of seven circles) =



Digital Edition