When it hits the fan

Oct 28, 2022

A few recent crisis communications matters with clients got me thinking about how this is still such an overly mysterious part of good public relations. So I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts for anyone who’s interested on this topic, with special attention to a very specific (and often misunderstood) aspect of it. Here’s the first of several parts (posts) on this…

Let’s take as an example, a company with a manager facing allegations of sexual harassment.

In an ideal world, all companies would have healthy cultures of mutual respect where everyone always behaves honorably and doesn’t tolerate bad behavior in colleagues or clients.

In the real world, even companies with deservedly excellent reputations for ethical leadership and management can employ jerks.

I’m not about to diagnose why some companies have jerk CEOs or jerk mail room clerks.

I’m here to give you some tips on how to be prepared to handle potential negative media coverage from accusations of sexual harassment so you can limit its impact on your company’s reputation.

Indeed, how well your company handles such incidents can even make or break your company.

Any company can face sexual harassment allegations. Most that do will also face related media scrutiny. Some companies handle such situations poorly. Some, well.

The difference lies in how company management acts, not in whether the accusations ultimately prove to be true or false. A company can be forgiven for having the misfortune to employ someone who turns out to be a jerk; it can’t if company leaders lie, dissemble or otherwise behave dishonestly or disrespectfully when faced with sexual harassment allegations.

Among the most basic tools companies should have in preparation for such unfortunate events is a crisis communications plan. For those not familiar, this is public relations jargon for what all too often is treated by companies as a stack of papers covered with words about what a company should do in the event of a crisis.

Having one of these little piles of paper won’t help you a bit if your crisis communications plan simply sits on a shelf or hard drive.

Which is why you should treat your crisis communications plan as a regular and normal aspect of daily business. Something that everyone knows and understands. Something that company leaders and other employees drill on, review frequently and otherwise keep up to date.

What’s a crisis communications plan and how do I create one?

I’m not going to bore you (and myself) with too many details. But here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

A crisis communications plan explains what constitutes a crisis. Typically, this means some sort of law violation, workplace accident, product defect, or misconduct by employees or customers. This being a seminar about sexual harassment, let’s stick with that.

A crisis communications plan is in essence a guide for management and other employees.

Among other things, it spells out:

Who responds to members of the media – and the public – who inquire about allegations of sexual harassment?

This should be limited to one or several people at most. Ideally an executive, senior manager or similar high-ranking employee who can speak authoritatively for the entire company.

What message gets conveyed?

First, acknowledge the seriousness of the accusations.

Explain in plain English what concrete steps the company is taking to learn the full truth. This could mean cooperating fully with law enforcement officials, announcing the appointment of an internal committee to investigate, or appointment of an independent, outside investigator to thoroughly examine the allegations.

Don’t attack the accuser or accusers, even if the allegations seem improbable or absurd. No comments about how “she always dressed provocatively” or the like. Take the high road, and counter the claims, if and when they can be disproven. 

A rapid response is paramount.

Don’t wait hours, days, weeks to respond. This only fuels speculation by media and the public that you have something to hide. This is also why having a crisis communications plan in place is so important. You want to immediately identify who is in charge of a crisis response, and identify the likely tasks that will have to be managed and by whom.

What’s more, a fast response also tends to limit negative coverage to one day or news cycle rather than days, weeks or even months of pummeling by the press.

Get it all out at once. That is, don’t withhold information that you know you will have to make public later.

For example, if the accused has been disciplined before for similar behavior, and you know you’ll likely have to say so publicly in the future, do so now. Holding back now, only to dribble it out later, will result in more, and likely worse, negative media coverage.

Avoid the appearance of “spin.”

Again, be forthright and honest. If you don’t know something, say so. If you can’t answer a question, say so. The deployment of “alternative facts” or similarly transparent and dumb sophistry will only harm your credibility. And will fairly guarantee more negative coverage.

Just because traditional media and social media share a word doesn’t mean you should treat them similarly.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t monitor social media postings for mentions of your company, including commentary on sexual harassment concerns or allegations. Rather, you’ll want to be careful about if and how you engage with those who post such comments.

In general, it’s best to avoid being drawn into online discussions involving provocative issues, whether the person posting is supportive of the accuser or of the company. Those who post on social media often do so anonymously, emboldening them to say more outrageous or false things than identifiable people might. And unlike those at traditional media outlets, such folks rarely adhere to standards of journalistic ethics and accountability.

No matter what the outcome, behave honorably.

If the accuser’s allegations prove to be baseless, say so. But don’t gloat.

If allegations are shown to be true – or even worse than first imagined – acknowledge as much, condemning them, accepting appropriate responsibility, and announcing any actions to be taken (firing the offender, etc.).

Pledge (honestly) to take steps to ensure such incidents never occur again. This may mean making changes in employee screening, hiring and training. Such cultural renewals generally must come from the top.

Finally, don’t forget to review how well you handled the crisis and, if necessary, make changes to your crisis communications plan and training.