Justice fails to be done if we’re not vigilant

Quickly. Name something in the news that has absolutely outraged you in the past two months. Or something about which you said, “That’s just not right.” Or something that made you say, “Whatever happens, I hope justice is done.”

Unless I miss my bet, you’ll have a hard time coming up with something off the top of your head. Even if you do, chances are that by this time next month, you’ll have moved on. The trouble is, companies and governments are counting on you to do so.

Were you seething after reading Greg Smith’s piece in The New York Times called Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs? Were you outraged by the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s British news operations? Did you declare you’d never fly JetBlue Airways again after one of its pilots had a meltdown? Again, by now, you’ve probably moved on.

About a month ago, Francesco Guerrera wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal called The Short Life of a PR Fiasco. (I hope the link works for you, but I believe you might have to be a subscriber to have access.) He pointed out that increasingly, companies and institutions that have committed gaffes both great and small might feel heat for a few days, but then, things return to normal.

Guerrera interviewed several public relations practitioners about why scandals and controversies seem to evaporate more quickly than they once did. He came up with three basic ideas:

  • The shiny object. Our attention spans are getting shorter, and the investing and consuming publics move on more quickly than traditional media. If a company has a bad story, “tell it and tell it fast,” says Robert Dilenschneider, head of the Dilenschneider Group. “If you do that, it goes away in a day. The attention span of the public is very short.” Maybe cynical, but sadly, true.
  • The loyalty issue. Many customers are willing to forgive a company if it has done a good job of building loyalty and respect. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Companies that are consistently striving to be ethical and to operate responsibly should get the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.
  • The lack of alternatives. As consolidation takes place throughout corporations worldwide, there are fewer places to take your business if you want to protest.

Guerrera says that in the case of true disasters, such as the BP oil spill, the public memory lasts longer. Even there, however, I find very few people who are still shaking their fists at BP.

He also points out that repeated failures can still take their toll. If a company puts up a long string of bad operating procedures and unethical performance, it can be taken down. Ask Massey Energy. On second thought, you can’t, because the company was bought after a long string of miners’ deaths and poor environmental performance.

Public opinion traditionally has been a powerful force in this country, but it loses its power on any given issue if it’s not persistent and sustained. So if you care about something, you can’t care just for a day or two and then move on. You need to commit for the long term. If you don’t, there’s no way to call people to justice.

What do you think? As a society, are we less likely now to hold bad actors accountable? If so, are we worse off for it?

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