Here’s an all too familiar saga. An employee goes to the press claiming that he was regularly sexually harassed at your company with senior leadership's knowledge and, by a lack of action, consent to the practice. It’s the first time you hear about it, but not before the blogosphere goes ballistic on the news.
Scores of media are calling asking for comment and time is of the essence. Every minute you don’t respond is one more minute that the other side gets to tell their story without rebuttal. Emotions are running very high, to say the least. So, what do you do?
Take a breath; one long, slow deep breath.
I know it’s counter-intuitive. You feel compelled to get in there and refute the arguments while, at the same time, shine the true light on the accuser who is bent on discrediting you for their own personal, selfish benefit. In your heart of hearts, you know the allegations aren’t true and you are biting at the chance to defend against them. You simply need to respond strongly and vehemently to the news organizations’ request for a statement or in-person interview right away.
Take caution in going this route. There are several reasons not to do so, and these three are the biggest...
Don’t Assume Anything
Anyone who’s ever been involved in a crisis communications issue knows that, without exception, the original facts are, at best, incomplete or, at worst, flat out wrong. Chaos ensues in practically every crisis communications event. First reports often come in unverified and will change as the situation unfolds. Taking the initial information at face value will almost certainly mean you’ll be correcting, clarifying or even retracting earlier statements. You’ll leave your stakeholders and interested parties confused, turned off and disinterested in doing business with you again.
Don’t Attack The Accuser
Even if the story is inflammatory, companies will not gain support for their position by going after the individual personally. Counter the claims, if you must, but keep your punches clean and “above the belt.” Taking the high road is always a good tactic.
Don’t Be Over Animated
You need to show a sense of calm, while at the same time, demonstrating care and concern for the matter. It’s a delicate balance that, if played right, will make you the voice of reason in the crisis. You need to be approachable, on message, and - most important - the “Steady Eddie.”
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot more that goes into developing a good crisis plan. If you want some CliffNotes-styles tools, check out this short video on how Uber responded well to a recent allegation by a former software engineer on her sexual harassment claim.