What racist webcams? HP handled issue well

When video of a black man complaining that HP computers are racist went viral, the company responded well

HP did a good job responding to complaints by a black man that its computers "are racist" because the included PC facial recognition software did not follow his face properly.

The statement was made in a YouTube video posted on Dec. 10 that went viral over the weekend, attracting nearly 100,000 views.

The video shows what is described as an HP webcam following a white face to keep it centered, but failing to follow a black face.

The company did not overreact to the racial element, treating the issue, basically, as a help desk problem. It promised to look into a solution. How many other companies would have handled this so well?

In the world of social networks, these sorts of crises are going to become more and more common. To his credit, Desi — subject of the video — did it with good humor. Once the video went viral, HP was quick to respond.

His racism statement was said not quite in jest, but not in anger, either. He clearly has a valid complaint about the software and made a pretty funny video to demonstrate.

Here's the gist of a blog post, by HP Community Manager Tony "Frosty" Welch, responding to the video:

"Some of you may have seen or heard of a YouTube video in which the facial-tracking software didn't work for a customer. We thank Desi, and the people who have seen and commented on his video, for bringing this subject to our attention.

"We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty "seeing" contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting. While we work on this, take a look here for more information on the impact of lighting on facial tracking software, and how to optimize your webcam experience: http://bit.ly/7HsZHD

"We will continue to listen to you and work to deliver great experiences. We invite you to connect with us on the discussion boards and forums here on The Next Bench or on Twitter at @HP_PC. "

That is a darn near perfect response. Before the quoted passages, Tony talked a bit about diversity at HP and its commitment to great experiences for all (underlining his) its worldwide customers. Tony was kind enough to provide a link to the video of Desi and a white coworker demonstrating the problem with the webcam software.

It worked on the white woman — Wanda — by keeping her face centered, but as soon as Desi appeared in the frame, the cam locked in its normal position.

What do we learn from this?

1. Remain calm. Frosty addressed the issue with a friendly, "everyone knows HP isn't racist" attitude, without actually saying it. This defused the issue, as did the headline "Customer Feedback is Important to Us."

2. Don't go on the defensive. Frosty actually thanked Desi for bringing this to HP's attention. He even linked to the video.

3. Don't attack. HP probably could have drummed up some "see it works on these black people" videos, but did not. It also did not try to diminish Desi's complaint, accepting it at face value.

4. Be human. Tony's post was warm and friendly, but not too much so. It did not seem contrived, just friendly and matter-of-fact. If the post was lawyered, it didn't show it.

While I doubt Tony will be flying Desi and Wanda out to HP headquarters for a few beers in the Rose Garden, this was an issue that required a touch of diplomacy.

Many less-confident companies would have somehow allowed the issue to explode in their faces.

How would your company have done?

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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