This piece originally appeared in Marketing Gazette.
In the fallout following the ever-so-juicy James Damore “MemoGate” scandal, opinion has roughly fallen into two camps: if you disagreed with his points you think Google were right to fire him, and if you agreed with them you think they were wrong.
That’s a pretty understandable decision making process I suppose, but it’s not a very smart one. The real question here is not whether you think he was right or not – that’s somewhat irrelevant – it’s what the smartest strategic play for the brand was when faced with a very difficult (and very public) challenge.
Essentially, how could they minimise their damage and leave themselves in the strongest position?
Sadly Google didn’t seem to see it that way. They made their decision the same way everyone else has, whilst failing to consider the bigger picture business consequences of their actions. And thus they may find that in the legacy of this case, the worst is yet to come…
To understand why firing him was the wrong move, we need to start with fundamental rule of modern marketing: your actions are your advertising. This is especially true for a company like Google, whose every twitch creates news stories. The basic idea is that you’re still trying to do the same thing you’ve always done with your ads – project a specific message that persuades people to use your product – however you are now trying to do that by running your company in a way that implies it, rather than pumping it out there in ads.
Google therefore, like everyone else, need to always be thinking “what’s our message?”, and “how can we make decisions that align with it and bolster it?”. Every move will basically be a mini ad, and it will either be an effective one or a crap one. And this was a real turkey.
The reason for this is the nature of their core product, search. Google are essentially responsible for the world’s access to information, which, in spite of them being a private company, is a huge civic responsibility. To be trusted with that responsibility, they need to show an unerring commitment to free speech and not favouring one form of information over another – an extremely tricky challenge in a world of bomb tutorial videos, child pornography, neo-Nazi stuff, and other material people think should be suppressed. However where we draw the line on that “other material” will never be cut and dried. There will always come a moment where you hit upon something half think should be allowed, and the other half think shouldn’t, and thus people have always relied on Google to be neutral mediators in these clashes of ideas.
By choosing to fire Damore – in effect “censoring” him internally for opinions that are widely held amongst their own employees according to an anonymous survey on the issue – Google have drawn attention to their lack of neutrality. It’s not that they shouldn’t have opinions (everyone does), but it’s the fact that they have allowed their opinions to guide behaviour, rather than the core principles that underpin their product. Being “right” or “wrong” is beside the point when you are a brand built on mediation.
Now, of course their behaviour in this situation does not necessarily mean that they will start suppressing conservative thought online, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as we all know, is the message; and they have sent a message that many people are translating as “we can’t be trusted to treat information impartially”.
If they were almost any other company – let’s say Tesla – then their decision wouldn’t have been a big deal. They could have then acted completely as they wished, because ultimately politics do not directly influence the efficacy of an electric car. The public would not have assumed Tesla have a worse product because of their decision to fire a sexist. But unfortunately for Google, different rules apply. This is a company that is already facing increasing calls to be regulated like a utility, to have its private status and its ability to make its own decisions taken away, and they have just awakened millions of people to that debate. Yesterday I might have thought of Google as a harmless intermediary – today I read stories about them “crushing free speech”. How long before I demand to know the secrets of their algorithm?
The right course of action would have been to make a statement thoroughly denouncing Damore’s opinions (thus dampening any accusations of tacit agreement), but saying that due to their commitment to open debate they won’t be disciplining him, they’ll simply make sure they prove him wrong through action and further steps to accelerate diversity. Then behind the scenes in all likelihood his position would have become untenable anyway, resulting in him leaving voluntarily and ultimately causing minimal damage for Google.
It’s no longer enough for businesses to merely try and do “the right thing” to minimise damage when it comes to scandals like this. They need to apply some ad strategy too, linking everything to the core purpose of their product, or risk having it erode over time. They may have thought their decision was good PR, but it was bad advertising – and when the government eventually tightens its grip on them, we might look back on this as a crucial tipping point in that journey.