After days of public outcry, an apology and even a $100,000 donation, the chief executive of food service giant Centerplate Inc. has finally resigned, unable to fend off the growing scandal over his mistreatment of a dog in a Vancouver elevator.
The ouster of Desmond Hague shines a spotlight on the power social media can have when executives go astray.
Centerplate's earlier responses to the footage were clearly not enough to contain the crisis. First, the company said it was "disturbed" by the leaked footage, in which Mr. Hague repeatedly kicked a dog and yanked its leash as it cowered from him at times. Then, it put Mr. Hague on probation and announced that he had agreed to donate $100,000 to establish an animal-welfare foundation.
On Tuesday, Centerplate, a caterer for stadiums and other entertainment venues based out of Stamford, Conn., announced Mr. Hague's resignation and thanked those "who expressed their feelings about this incident."
"Their voices helped us to frame out deliberations during this very unusual and unfortunate set of circumstances," board chairman Joe O'Donnell said in the statement.
That statement points to a fundamental change in how companies manage public relations in the wake of a crisis.
Digital media have allowed those "voices" to multiply and amplify. The public can call out companies for bad behaviour, and whip up a public relations frenzy it is sometimes impossible to contain.
"I refer to it as the fiasco vortex. … It spins downward faster than you can do anything about it," said Eric Dezenhall, founder of Washingtonbased public relations firm Dezenhall Resources and an expert in crisis management.
"There is no crisis management playbook any more."
Mr. Hague is not the first to prove that point.
In April, Brendan Eich stepped down just weeks after he was named CEO of Mozilla, the software company behind the Firefox Internet browser. The controversy arose because of a $1,000 donation Mr. Eich made in 2008 to support Proposition 8, a motion to ban same-sex marriage in California.
In a blog post announcing Mr. Eich's resignation, Mozilla executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker referred to the strength of the response online.
"While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the Web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better," she wrote.
The conversations that happen online in real time can have a real impact on a company.
"Social media enhance the visibility of leader misdeeds, which can be quickly attached to a brand," said Stephen Paskoff, president and CEO of Atlanta, Ga.-based ELI Inc., which consults businesses on the behaviour of their employees.
"All of us can capture moments that previously went undocumented … to be immediately disseminated broadly."
That was evident in the case of Donald Sterling. The billionaire former owner of the L.A. Clippers was banned from the National Basketball Association for life in April. In a leaked video, Mr. Sterling made racist remarks. Social media were responsible both for the speed at which the video was distributed, and for a backlash that left the NBA with little choice but to show Mr. Sterling the door.
Last December, Justine Sacco, the director of corporate communications at IAC – which owns online dating services Match.com, Tinder as well as media sites such as CollegeHumor and Vimeo – posted a tweet before boarding a flight to South Africa. By the time she had landed, she was infamous. It read: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Ms. Sacco deleted her Twitter account and later issued an apology. The next day, IAC announced she had been fired.
Companies now have to grapple with a reality in which misdeeds cannot be smoothed out with PR spin. That may be good for transparency, but some believe it is not universally positive.
"You are now defined by your very worst moment. Not only that, your very worst moment is memorialized," Mr. Dezenhall said. "Even though we're all vulnerable, we also actively enjoy seeing others scorched. … It's a free-for-all where people and organizations can become targets, and they don't have the power to defend themselves. When social media get going, it's not balanced. It's almost universally, 'Kill, kill, kill.'"