Do you trust Undercover Boss?

Corporate America and its top executives are making the news everyday. The economy, unemployment rates, government bail outs and product crises are becoming a trend on the home pages and front pages of news publications and can often work to make or break an industry.

Let’s go back a few months with Toyota. The Japanese auto manufacturer has been under the microscope since January when it recalled millions of cars across Europe and the U.S. for reported brake issues. The move was said cost the company billions of dollars not to mention what they will lose by customer loyalty. To make matters worse, there is now reason to believe that the company had known about the brake issues for some time before coming clean to the public.

Just a few weeks ago,  Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” podcast told the story of the success behind Toyota and how the company could have helped the U.S. auto industry. According to the podcast, titled “NUMMI,” the employee relations and company culture at Toyota far surpasses its American competitors.Was the timing of this podcast planned? If it was, did it help to to shine the brand that Toyota had slightly tarnished with its massive recall?

Arguably not, but it didn’t hurt it the company’s rep either.

On the home front, large corporations are still struggling with an economy that is unpredictable. A crisis like the one facing Toyota could mean the end. Is there anything that can help them?

Enter CBS.

Maybe some of you have seen previews or even an entire episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss. In one hour, CBS takes a chief officer from some of the most well-known corporations in America (Roto Rooter, 7-Eleven, Hooters and Waste Management have all been featured), disguises them and sends them to the ranks to work with the people that make their companies run and learn what it takes to do their jobs. If you’ve ever seen it, you know that it tends to get emotional. By the end of the show, the chief officers make their big reveal and end up giving away money, promotions, even cars to the employees that they shadowed while acting as a new hire.

Sounds like the stereotypical reality TV show. You know the type, real people acting as themselves with the cameras catching every juicy second. The obvious question here is how real is this concept and is it actually benefiting the companies involved?

Chris Morran of The Consumerist thought the same things and dug a little deeper in his recent post, “How real is Undercover Boss?” From what he found out in a recent L.A. Times article, the head honchos, which is how he refers to those chief officers, are given no say in how they are portrayed or how their company is portrayed. However, L.A. Times’ reporter Maria Elena Fernandez says that most of these bosses do the show after persuasion from their PR departments. She reports,

“We wanted the show to be transformational for the company, the boss, and for the people the boss worked alongside,” said executive producer Stephen Lambert. “On the one hand, trying to see how the company could be better by viewing it from the front line without people realizing that they were the boss. But the second part of the mission was always to identify the people who were doing a particularly good job and maybe sometimes in difficult circumstances.”

So is this a stereotypical PR maneuver? Is it genuine? Is it simply about making money for CBS or otherwise?

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3 Responses to Do you trust Undercover Boss?

  1. tburns says:

    As I have said multiple times, I think it depends on the sincerity of each individual boss that participates in the show…

    Bosses who are personable, genuinely care about their own image, as well as the company image, and who understand the concept that hard work at all levels of a business pay off, those bosses truely can have a learning experience with this type of show. Even if they were convinced by their PR people to do the show, maybe it didn’t take much convincing, because they hadn’t heard about it or because they aren’t ones to be in the spotlight, they can still have a great eye-opening experience.

    However, this show can be just an ego-booster of some types of bosses. Those who love hearing their own voices (or for that matter seeing their face on TV) or who can be lured by the money their company might be paid for participating, those are the types to avoid putting on the show and who are oding a stereotypical PR move.

    As social media expands and the 24-hour news cycle becomes more intense, I think people are starting to see how much individuality and personality can affect a company, and I think this show has the ability to showcase just that. Before the rise of technology, there really could be a divide between your personal life and your professional one. However, now those two separate entities are becoming more and more intertwined. Whether we like this blurring or not is a different story. However, it is clear that who you are as a person is becoming more and more a crucial component when successfully running a business or corporation.

  2. hhoma says:

    I’ve seen two episodes, and I find it interesting that you mentioned the money and promotions that are handed out by the end of the show. Yes, they showcase some good employees, but what I paid attention to most was the employees who got caught breaking the rules or representing the company poorly. Those people were the ones that stuck in my head, which leads me to think that the show is a mix of good PR and bad PR. I’m sure the CEOs don’t want their companies to be portrayed poorly, but it happens, and I think it speaks louder than the “Oh look how much they learned and how much better the company will get” message.

    I do think it is a good idea for a CEO to go undercover, but I don’t think it’s a good thing to televise it. For one, it does seem like a stereotypical PR maneuver in a way, but I also feel that everyone acts differently when they know they’re on camera.

  3. cnaughton says:

    tburns – I definitely hear what your saying about the tricky business of PR in the corporate world. It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of the elimination of the distinction between personal and professional lives. You’re absolutely right that this is becoming a reality and interestingly enough, I think this show exemplifies that to an extent.

    hhoma – I also remember the employees who displayed unfavorable characteristics, but I also remember what the bosses did to help improve them, be it by providing extra training or mentoring. So while those employees may not represent the company well, the actions that the bosses took on television to improve the situation may represent the company even better.

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