Roseanne, Corporate Priorities, and Social Media

ABC canceled the second season of the revived Roseanne on Tuesday afternoon, hours after Roseanne Barr shot a racist tweet across the Internet — yet another reminder that life comes at you fast in the social media age, so Corporate America should know its priorities and how they shape the decisions you make.

Barr sent out this tweet on Tuesday morning:


“VJ” refers to Valerie Jarrett, one of President Obama’s closest advisers during his administration. She is also black. So on top of the whole above discussion being more nonsense from the Deep State conspiracy crackpots, Barr’s comment is pure, vile racism.

The tweet was sent at 2:45 a.m. ET, and streaked into public awareness immediately. Barr apologized on Twitter about eight hours later. By then, comedian Wanda Sykes, a consultant to the Roseanne reboot (who is also black), said she was quitting the show. Actress Sara Gilbert, who plays one of Roseanne’s daughters, denounced the comments too.

Gilbert stopped short of saying that she would quit, but ABC made that decision for the whole cast — Roseanne redux, canceled. Robert Iger, CEO of Disney (ABC’s parent company) then issued this statement:

The Roseanne reboot was one of ABC’s surprise hits when it arrived earlier this spring, and ABC quickly renewed the show for a second season. Filming was already underway when Tuesday’s outburst torpedoed that idea.

Barr, for her part, also said that she would be “leaving Twitter” although her account (664,000 followers) was still active as of 2:30 pm Tuesday afternoon. Considering the collective earache this loudmouth has given the American public for 25 years, good riddance. Her departure cannot come soon enough.

Priorities & Risk Velocity

There’s something poetic in Barr’s racism, and ABC’s reaction to it, happening on May 29. That’s the same day that Starbucks closed all its stores in the United States, to spend the afternoon training employees on racial bias.

Starbucks fell into trouble because of an incident last month, where the manager of a coffee shop in Philadelphia called the police on two black men sitting in the store waiting for a business appointment to arrive. Their arrest was captured on video and then shared on social media.

Both instances tell us a lot about what ethics and compliance officers like to call “social media risk” — because, really, social media isn’t a risk unto itself. Rather, social media is an accelerant for the risks you already have.

After all, store managers have used race as a shortcut for deciding whom to serve for generations. Hollywood has tolerated racism and sexism among its star performers for decades. The misconduct may be deplorable, but it’s not new.

What’s new is who gets to document, investigate, and evaluate the misconduct. Once upon a time, the company got to do those tasks; today everyone does. In that world, the company can only respond to those judgments — and unless your company has gamed out every possible misconduct scenario in advance, many of those responses will need to be improvised.

Which means the company will need to default to its priorities to decide what to do.

You’ll notice I used the word “priorities” instead of “values.” That’s deliberate, and compliance officers should appreciate the distinction between the two terms.

Corporate priorities are your organization’s objectives, ranked in order of importance. Staying true to ethical values is one priority, to be sure; but it is only one priority among many: making money, commanding market share, hiring the best people, expanding into new markets, and more.

What’s new is who gets to document, investigate, and evaluate the misconduct. Once upon a time, the company got to do those tasks; today everyone does. In that world, the company can only respond to those judgments

Standing Firm

Social media puts those priorities to the test, because it removes the luxury of time and analysis that companies might have had in years past. The misconduct is there for all to see and all to talk about. Different constituencies will use social media as a megaphone to pressure the organization to behave as they want, which may not always be in the best interests of the organization itself.

You withstand those stressful circumstances by having a clear set of priorities that everyone can see. The circumstances themselves might be unanticipated (who at ABC woke up Tuesday morning expecting Barr to put the company in this position?) but clear priorities are guideposts to find your way through an uncharted crisis quickly.

In Barr’s case, the decision was easy. She said something vile and racist. Everyone saw it. “Not tolerating racism in the workforce” is a clear corporate priority, all the more so for consumer-facing companies like a television network. So over the side Barr went. It may have been an expensive decision, but not a difficult one. 

Not all decisions will be as clear-cut, especially as different groups weaponize social media channels for their own ends. (Looking at you, President Trump.)

Still, let’s remember what social media really does for corporate ethics and conduct: it accelerates the risks you already have, by removing your ability to document, investigate, and evaluate allegations of misconduct at the pace you want. Your organization is left on the back foot, responding to decisions about misconduct others have already made.

When those forces push you onto the back foot, corporate priorities will be what keeps you upright. Hope that they’re clear and straight when the time comes.

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