What this year’s Oscar mixup can teach us about recruiting through a PR crisis


Sometimes, the biggest hurdle to attracting top talent is the one we have no control over.

I was reminded of that fact after this year’s jaw-dropping Oscar mix-up, when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong Best Picture. It was clear that—for all the history that was made that evening—this single snafu will shape the way we talk about the Oscars for quite a while. It will certainly change some processes along the way.

Things happen. Statistically speaking, the risk of having a public relations crisis or an industry or market event that will put your employment brand in a “hard place to sell” in the next two years is probably 100 percent.

Don’t believe it? According to communications firm ODM Group, 59 percentof business leaders have experienced a PR crisis, and 79 percent believe the next crisis is less than a year away. And managing this type of emergency is something businesses often plan for.

Yet not many think about how they’ll manage candidate perceptions when things go awry, until they do.

Then what?


How to engage candidates when bad things happen

Nothing is more challenging than trying to engage candidates when the news on the street—whether about your company or your industry—is less than flattering.  Companies that own up to their challenges or sincerely apologize for their mistakes will find both customers and candidates can be, on the whole, surprisingly forgiving.

Choosing the best response can mean the difference between having an employment brand that’s irreversibly tarnished in the eyes of candidates, and one they can forgive and embrace. It takes time and effort, and knowing where to focus:


Take responsibility

In recent weeks, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has generated enough bad press for his company to last a lifetime. From lying about driver earnings and predatory lending practices to the FTC, to the open letter by a former employee about alleged sexual harassment at the company, and to being caught on camera being abusive to one of his own drivers, Kalanick has found himself apologizing publically at every turn. And while he has published an apology for his actions and admission that he needed leadership help, only time will tell if his—and his company’s—walk will meet the talk.

During their competitor’s very bad month of missteps, Lyft put effort into publicizing the differences in their cultures and values. Lyft’s culture is notably purpose-driven, as shown in their social actions and communications around the Trump’s Muslim ban, which affected many employees. Employee-recognition, long center stage in its practices, became the focus of its consumer and recruitment marketing. And both the number of new drivers and app users have increased dramatically.

This is a lesson that every company should take to heart. For example, when quality issues forced the Samsung to recall its flagship mobile device, the Note 7, they put enormous effort to spell it out their commitment to quality to the consumer. But chances are, they’re seeing an impact on their recruiting, as well, without any word on how employees are engaged in the efforts. It is easy to be dismissive of its impact, but bad press has a ripple effect.

When you’re in the press for all the wrong reasons, then it’s going to be difficult to attract and keep top talent.  Studies show that 69% of job seekers wouldn’t take a role with a company that had a bad reputation, even if they were unemployed. Meanwhile 84% would consider leaving their current job if they were offered another role by a business with an excellent reputation.


Speak directly to candidates and employees about the problem.

While it’s essential to focus on a transparent and progressive external response to candidates, communicating clearly and efficiently with employees can create powerful brand ambassadors in troubled times.

In 2008, a crisis of historic proportion hit the U.S. auto industry. Chrysler, who was already suffering from longer-term market share declines when the crisis arrived, went through a bankruptcy they were able to escape from only with the help of bailout funds from the U.S. federal government.

As you can imagine, top-tier engineering students weren’t chomping at the bit to make the industry—or the beleaguered Detroit—their home. But addressing the issue up front with candidates, and even explaining how they could be part of the “reinvention” of the industry went a long way to reengaging the audience. Rallied and inspired by former CEO Sergio Marchionne, and buoyed by their ability to pay back $7.6 billion worth of high-interest bailout loans to the U.S. and Canadian governments six years ahead of schedule, Chrysler’s employees became their best advertisement for where they were going.

“It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel,” said the bold Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem.  Chrysler didn’t shy away from the problem. Instead it found ways to give it purpose.    


How you empathize can say a lot about your brand. 

There’s competent communication, and then there’s communication that enhances your brand. Last year, a power outage at Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta caused global computer problems for the airline that left hundreds of flights canceled and delayed, stranding passengers around the globe. The company did a great job using Twitter to deliver up-to-date information and even a video apology by CEO Ed Bastian among its hourly updates on the system status and flight cancellations.

Months later, Southwest Airlines experienced a similar technology related problem that caused days of delays and cancellations. Their response to the crisis highlighted the differences in their culture in a very compelling way.

Instead of concentrating on the drier, update-type communications, Southwest Airlines shared stories on Twitter and Facebook that showed its customers and employees making the best of a bad situation, like the pilot who made origami planes with children or the passengers who passed the time in unusual ways.

Southwest was able to put people at the center of its crisis narrative, which tells you what is at the heart of its culture.

Even though fliers in both situations were angered by the delays and cancellations, Southwest’s focus not only resonated with its customer base, but because employees were recognized as the heroes of the hour, its candidates recognized a great culture in action.

Just like a consumer brand, an employment brand is built on trust. Keeping trust with employees and candidates when crisis hits isn’t rocket science: if you own up to the problem, communicate authentically, and show you understand how it effects your audience, and you can do more than weather the crisis. You can grow from it.



Written by Patty Silbert

President of Newton Talent since 2018, Patty Silbert has over 30 years of experience developing the innovative solutions that help HR professionals just like you meet their most pressing recruitment challenges and their companies achieve their talent acquisition goals. She is a regular writer and speaker on the subjects of recruitment strategy, employment branding, HR technology, and leadership.