There is no shortage of powerful men being felled by scandal lately. From Hollywood to Wall Street, from Capitol Hill to the Fourth Estate—no industry is immune. And it appears the cycle of revelations, accusations, ham-fisted apologies, pseudo-apologies and angry denials is just getting started.
Considering the scale of this wave of accusations, business leaders need to ask themselves: What do we do when it happens to us?
Most of us hope this won’t happen to our organization. However, hope is not a strategy. Most companies have anti-harassment policies and this seems like the ideal time to dust off those employee handbooks for a review. But to be effective you should be proactively communicating your policies to ensure compliance. Deploying some simple, professional and preventative internal communication can make a world of difference. It’s easier to avert a fixable problem than to ignore it and try to do damage control later. Because, frankly, there is no good way to respond to accusations of sexual misconduct.
However, there is a right way. With the hurt victims, misuse of power and highly-charged feelings, these situations first require an empathetic, human response. That’s where communications come in. I can’t comment on the legal procedures. And the human resource issues are another matter as well. However, I can provide insight into how skillful crisis communications can protect a business and the people that are part of it.
Beyond their fiduciary responsibility to the company, business leaders are responsible to the people with whom they work to be prepared for any scenario—yes, even sexual harassment—with a disaster recovery plan. And that includes a robust crisis communications strategy. A lack of clear communications can make employees feel unmoored and demoralized.
However, having a plan ensures everyone in your organization is on the same page. It lets employees know you’re dialed-in on the issue and taking positive steps to address it. In part, you will also help protect the jobs of those who have done nothing wrong but are nonetheless impacted. Having a communications strategy for this type of scenario reassures your clients and customers you are looking out for their interests as well. But most importantly, planning for the worst will help to produce the best possible result under the circumstances. It may very well save your business.
So, ask yourself: What will you do if your CEO or board member or a high-ranking manager is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace? What will you do when the local news station calls for comment? Do you have a plan?
The answers come from conducting a realistic threat assessment. From that assessment, you must create a communications plan that ensures your company can effectively weather such a scandal, including the rebuilding of trust with your employees, customers, vendors and the public. You need buy-in from stakeholders, clearly defined roles, back-up personnel and—most importantly—a rock solid commitment to the truth and sharing the facts as you know them. Developing a plan like this takes time, so first focus on prevention. But also have a plan.
After all, the worst time to prepare for a crisis is when you are already in one. As we’ve witnessed through countless media statements from the accused, saying “sorry” isn’t easy. In fact, when done poorly—yes, I’m looking at you Kevin Spacey—these statements make matters substantially worse, adding to the number of negative news cycles, the confusion of employees and the pain of survivors.