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Why the Most Successful CEOs Embrace Customer Diversity

Why the Most Successful CEOs Embrace Customer Diversity

Every week it seems another major American brand is in crisis. Despite a large industry of experts dedicated to fixing them, these crises only seem to be getting more frequent and damaging. Many have focused on issues of diversity in the workplace. Even Silicon Valley has lately been experiencing difficulties in this area.

Why haven’t companies gotten better at avoiding these crises? Consider Lululemon, whose founder and CEO stepped down after making a statement the company’s customers interpreted as being critical of their bodies. Mozilla’s board removed their highly qualified CEO after widespread public protest over his stated opposition to gay marriage. AOL CEO Tim Gray suffered severe backlash after publicly firing an employee—he survived, but only after issuing an even more public apology.

How to Avoid Becoming the Next Target of Online Backlash

[Related: 10 Ways to Improve Your Company's Diversity Results]

If you are a CEO, there are several steps you can take to ensure you don’t become the next target of online backlash. The first is to understand why these crises are happening so often and what they share in common.

The problem often starts internally. Statements and actions by CEOs and other leaders portray them as out of touch with the people their companies target as consumers. Outrage ignites online, goes viral, and then lands on prime time news. CEOs and boards are surprised over the impact of their actions or statements. They are often puzzled as to why a backlash occurred at all.

For consumers who feel their opportunities are restricted due to their age, race or gender, America’s corporate culture represents their largest obstacle. To those who are unemployed or recently graduated with significant college debt, the high salaries of senior management, as well as the lack of diversity in that stratum, are a common source of resentment. (This does not reflect a personal view, but a conclusion after analyzing why such situations occur.)

Millennials and Women Are Top Social Media Users...and Support Diversity

Many companies have taken steps to expand opportunities among suppliers and employees. But what is clear from social media and other online chatter is that many feel distant from corporate cultures even though they purchase their products.

[Related: Why Gender Diversity is the Future of Economic Success]

We may understand the sources of the resentment fueling these online conflagrations. But who are the Internet citizens igniting these fires? Millennials are top social media users. Women are the dominant users of most social media platforms. Ironically, they represent the two consumer groups most actively courted by the same companies that are experiencing so much 2.0 havoc.

Consumers have built their own self-contained digital communities. They are using these communities to express their beliefs in increasingly powerful ways. How will this dynamic affect the reputations of American corporations, and of perhaps more direct concern, their shareholder value? Organized boycotts are one example.

Take a Close Look at Your Top Team. If it Isn't Diverse, You May Become a Future Topic of #Hashtag Activism

So the need to avoid brand-damaging crises is only getting more urgent. CEOs are almost always isolated from the larger body of their company’s employees as well as from consumers. Make a point to spend time with such employees — a monthly Town Hall meeting at lunchtime, where you learn about their challenges as well as their ideas for the company. Consider breaking them into groups so you can truly gain insight not only to their cultures, but to the customers those cultures may represent.

Take a look at photographs of your board, operational committee and leadership team. If they aren’t representative of the people buying your products and services, you may be perceived as being out of touch with the values and concerns of your consumer base. Don’t let that become a topic of #hashtag activism.

Even though it isn’t your responsibility to fix the problems facing many Americans, examine the most pressing issues among your largest consumer groups. Then introduce a way to genuinely help them. View it as a marketing expense. You will see ROI.

Some of you may be facing a crisis, but if you take a second look, you will see a profitable opportunity.

This article was originally published on

Shannon M. Wilkinson is founder and CEO of Reputation Communications, an online reputation management firm for the Forbes & Fortune 500 and clients in business, finance and philanthropy. She is the chief blogger at You Online, Reputation Communications’ digital resource to help CEOs, industry leaders, risk officers and VIPs manage their Internet image. She tweets @reputationnews and @shannonnewyork.

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