Hewlett Packard, Racist Programming and PR Crisis Management

December 23rd, 2009

Sometimes very bizarre and random viral videos can put a big dent in a company’s reputation, triggering the need for a crisis PR response by the accused.  Case in point: Hewlett-Packard.

The viral video in question shows two electronics store personnel talking directly to a camera connected to a HP computer with facial-recognition software.  The fist employee is black, but the software appears incapable of making the camera recognize and follow his face and movements. The second employee is white, and when she steps in view the software and camera track her properly.  Based on the software’s faulty recognition, the employees conclude that HP is racist.

Many competing theories can abound from this occurrence, but let’s say for the sake of argument that this is an innocent programming error in the HP software.  The fact that the employees are laughing also softens the video’s tone slightly.  In other words, there is very likely a simple and non-racist explanation for the camera tracking patterns.

If that’s the case, then why doesn’t HP practice competent crisis management and put a brief explanation in plain view on their Web site?  And why, when asked, did the company just say it “is looking into” the issue?  As of late afternoon, you won’t find anything on their home page, nor in their press releases.  Very bad move, considering that Google News shows almost 200 articles with the words “HP” and “racist” in the headlines!

It’s highly unlikely that an incident like this will collapse a mega-billion dollar corporate titan like HP.  On the other hand, basic crisis public relations tactics could have put this fire out before HP products became labeled as “racist” – not a great place for your company to be 2 days before Christmas.

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