In a recent turn of events, a woman in an anonymous open letter accused CEO of The Viral Fever Arunabh Kumar of molesting her on multiple occasions during her stint at the widely popular digital content creation company.
After the first anonymous letter was made public on Monday, more women came out and accused Kumar of sexual harassment. Social media users have now called for a boycott of TVF in response to this developing story where as many as 50 women have made allegations against Kumar.
This is not the first such incident to hog headlines and social media conversations. In the past, Tarun Tejpal (editor in chief, Tehelka), RK Pachauri (ex-Director TERI), Phaneesh Murthy (ex-CEO iGate) have all been accused of sexual harassment. With every such incident it becomes more and more evident that organisations need to be sensitised about handling cases of sexual harassment, especially if the complaint is against one of the top bosses of the organisation.
Vague, badly-framed, and clumsy response to an issue as serious as an allegation of sexual harassment can harm any brand’s image, say experts. In the case of TVF, in the first official statement released by the company, the company denied all the accusations made in the open letter and said that the company “will leave no stone unturned” to find the author and “bring them to severe justice” for making false allegations. Needless to say, this statement has received severe flak across social media channels for being unempathetic in its tone and not accepting responsibility to set up an unbiased investigation.
In the past, a friend of the daughter of Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief, Tehelka, accused him of sexual assault and abuse of power. Tehelka’s then Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhury in her email to Tehelka staff called Tejpal’s actions an “untoward incident” and only under pressure did the magazine set up a committee to investigate the allegations.
Passing off an allegation of sexual harassment as an “untoward incident” was criticised heavily by the public and media. A magazine that was earlier known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism, Tehelka’s image took a beating for the manner in which the organisation handled the accusation against Tejpal. “Tejpal was a highly credible name in the industry and with that one incident his image was completely tarnished and he has vanished,” said a senior PR practitioner working at a leading MNC.
Early in 2015, a woman lodged a complaint against TERI Director, RK Pachauri for alleged offence of criminal intimidation, sexual harassment. Following the complaint, the Harvard University withdrew the invitation to Pachauri to speak at the India Conference. Activists, lawyers, and alumni of TERI demanded Pachauri to step down from his position at TERI, which finally severed all ties with him in 2016.
Brand image harmed
Clumsy handling of a sexual assault allegation could potentially damage the brand image of an organisation, experts say. N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, says that unless a brand takes appropriate action on allegations as serious as sexual assault the brand’s image will be negatively impacted. An incident such as this reflects on the brand as a whole, he says, adding that an apology is not enough.
Harish Bijoor, brand-expert and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults, said that a brand should not only be beyond reproach but also appear to be beyond reproach. “Whether such an allegation is true or not, just the allegation itself can rattle the brand,” he says.
Experts from the branding and PR fraternity say that when organisations get embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment against their top bosses it is very important to set up an external, neutral panel to investigate the case.
India has witnessed a spate of cases of sexual harassment allegations being made against men in power, as mentioned earlier and now with Kumar being accused, the spotlight is back on how sensitively or insensitively do organisations handle the case. “Given the sensitivity of the issue and the current environment we are in, brands need to create positivism and not negativism when such allegations are made,” Bijoor adds. Such positivism can be engendered by taking responsibility and setting up an investigation panel, he further says.
Social media denizens have very low tolerance on matters such as these. “An incident like this if not handled well can completely ruin a brand’s image for a long time. It could take the person who has been accused a long time to recover from this, if the allegations are found to be true,” said the PR practitioner. He added that when the CEO of a company is who the accusations are against, the organisation should get a separate spokesperson who can speak on behalf of the organisation.
For a brand like TVF whose audience mostly comprises social media savvy millennials, the inept response from TVF has riled social media users and the growing negative sentiment also threatens to harm the company’s subscriber base. Bijoor says that despite the general notion that the memory of the public is very short, in controversial incidents such as these could be harmful to a brand’s image.