retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Not a great week for Safeway's senior vice president and general counsel Robert Gordon, who stood up at the company's annual shareholder meeting and told the following joke:

You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that's doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.

The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, "Nice pigs, sir."

And the president said, "These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."

And the Secret Service agent said, "Excellent trade, sir."

Now, he told the joke right before he called the meeting to order ... so it technically was not part of the meeting. But it apparently was on an official recording of the session ... and all over the blogosphere after it happened.

Now, I asked Mrs. Content Guy about this joke, and she said while she didn't find it to be particularly sexist, she thought it was kind of stupid, and not funny. I told her about some conversations I'd had with some people yesterday it which it was suggested that Gordon ought to lose his job, and she thought that seemed a little excessive ... though she did think he ought to be prevented from ever again telling jokes at public events.

I tend to agree with her on this. To me, this does not rise to the level of career-ending. It was dumb, but to me, the real crime is that it was not funny.

Here's the deal. There are a lot of us who make a living talking and writing, often on short deadlines or in front of live audiences. Do it enough, and you're going to screw up - you are going to tell a joke that isn't funny or is somewhat offensive, or you are going to tick someone off, or you are just going to go off the tracks.

For some of us - like me - that is part of the job description. But for others - like general counsels at public corporations - this can be treacherous territory.

There was a time when such a joke might have been told, there would have been some chuckles and groans, and then it would have been forgotten. But that's not the way things work these days. Make a misstep, and the world will know it. And maybe never forget it.

Now, Gordon has issued a statement:

"I sincerely apologize if the opening comments I made at the recent annual stockholders meeting offended anyone. As these comments have been interpreted, they are not a reflection of my personal beliefs or that of my employer. I understand how my comments have impacted others and I hope they will accept my apology."
Gordon made a bunch of mistakes here. He told a joke that wasn't funny. He told a joke that could've alienated women shareholders, employees, customers and business partners. He seemed to forget that some of his shareholders could be (gasp!) Democrats. And he forgot that in today's world, there is no such thing as a short memory.

Let's not overreact. But also, let's not forget the lesson.
KC's View: