The Weighty PR Challenge Facing Weight Watchers
David Kirchhoff, the President and CEO of Weight Watchers, earned $2.96 million in 2011.
Singer Jessica Simpson signed a contract to be a celebrity endorser for Weight Watchers last year that pays her a cool $3 million. Singer Jennifer Hudson and basketball star Charles Barkley, among others, have also received millions to endorse the brand.
So it’s little surprise that their employees—some of whom complain about barely making minimum wage—feel underpaid and undervalued. And in a bit of a nightmare scenario for the company, their employees’ complaints recently made it to the front page of The New York Times.
One employee quoted in the piece said she is “paid less than the kids who work at McDonald’s.” Another accused the company of being like an “abusive relationship,” since “you know you should leave, but you stay because you love it.”
The employees quoted in the article brilliantly cast the issue as a women’s rights issue, since the majority of its workers are women—many of whom are highly skilled and choose to work for the company due to their own positive experiences with the brand.
But this isn’t the standard “complaining about compensation” piece, because the manner in which this story became public is unusual.
According to a statement Weight Watchers sent me via email yesterday, the company confirms that, “The discussion among our [employees] took place on message boards on our Weight Watchers hosted communication hub.” And it’s on that very website that employee complaints about compensation poured in by the hundreds.
So here’s a question: Should Weight Watchers have had a policy in place that governed the types of “acceptable” comments it would allow to be posted on the internal website it hosted and paid for? Should they have directed employees to lodge complaints or raise concerns by emailing a specific address instead of allowing its own site to become a group forum for grousing?
I couldn’t help thinking that Weight Watchers could have helped prevent this story from bubbling up to the surface simply by moderating their site more carefully. Sure, nothing would have stopped employees from complaining on third party websites—but it would have been much more difficult for them to communicate without a central website to visit—especially because the workforce is diffuse and decentralized.
A Weight Watchers spokesperson told me via email that, “We have begun gathering feedback in a thorough proactive process and will make changes to our compensation system later this year.” The company pledges to provide “updates on our compensation system through emails and posts on our internal employee website.”
The issue Weight Watchers now has on its hands—the issue of the huge gap between executive vs. employee compensation—is one of the toughest ones for any company to handle. I’ve written more about that issue here.
So what do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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I agree that WW should have been more actively monitoring their own site–a common mistake. You think companies would have learned this by now. Having said that, if they were dedicated to being there and talking, I think their own site is the best place for the discussion as long as they are participating and working to find a resolution. If they try and take the discussion elsewhere, I’m afraid there might be a perception they are trying to hide something. Stay there, take your licks, and try to make it right. Their corporate response is just that. Hope they treat their employees and their fans in a more authentic way. Too bad they weren’t proactive. That will kill you more than anything these days.
When you try to squelch dissent on your own moderated board, you just drive the conversation elsewhere — to Facebook, to blogs, to listservs. As you point out, it would be more difficult for people to find those alternate sites as opposed to a centralized, corporate one. But gripers are very motivated. So instead of some of your employees complaining on your site (among many other employees who aren’t complaining), now you have dozens of sites comprised solely of small numbers of very vocal, very unhappy employees. Social media and Google searches amplify those efforts across the Internet.
Of course, maybe if they just paid their employees better…
Craig and Chris –
Thank you both for your comments.
Here’s an alternate proposal: Let’s say they had jumped into the conversation sooner and been an active presence on their own boards (from what I’ve read, hundreds of comments piled up before Weight Watchers joined the conversation). I’d generally believe that that could have diminished the likelihood of additional comments, since piling on after Weight watchers pledged to review the pay structure would have seemed somewhat redundant.
All good comments: (1) Monitor your own site, (2) respond appropriately when it goes haywire. The days of keeping quiet are over. We always have to set reasonable expectations. “What does realistic success look like in this situation?” I don’t think they could have made the problem go away, but they could have mitigated it.