You wouldn’t want to be in the business of selling diesel cars following the Volkswagen scandal nor would you want to be a fundraiser raising money for prostate cancer or even for Yooralla, the Victorian disability provider.
What did Volkswagen do? Volkswagen has admitted that 11 million of its cars failed to meet certain emissions standards but passed testing due to specially programmed “defeat devices”. The cars were programmed so that a reduced amount of diesel flowed through the system when the vehicles were being tested for emissions. They passed the test but when checked independently were found to have up to 40 times the amount of nitrous oxide emissions that are permitted in some countries. And, it seems to be getting worse with the recent news that the scandal is spreading to Porsche.
And why is there a problem for prostate cancer bodies? Professor John Kearsley recent pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a female colleague after he spiked her drink with bennies. Why would this impact on prostate cancer charities? Because Professor Kearsley helped to found the Prostate Cancer Institute. Do donors know the difference between the Prostate Cancer Institute, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Prostate Cancer Australia? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Kearsley was a professor at the University of NSW and, until February 2014, he was a senior oncologist at a leading Sydney hospital. He was a leading figure in the medical profession, and he assaulted a colleague, he did so using a controlled substance and he was a bit of a hero in the development of prostate cancer treatment, research and funding.
What went wrong for Yooralla? A former casual carer was jailed for 18 years for raping people with disability in his care who were Yooralla clients. The CEO of Yooralla resigned, the board lost its chair, and there were calls for a national inquiry into the disability sector.
And before you say (or sing) “One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, girl” in PR terms yes it does. So how do you – as a seller of diesel cars, a fundraiser for prostate cancer or Yooralla – separate yourself from these terrible events?
A breach of trust
These scandals saw very real damage inflicted on the poor woman who was assaulted by a trusted colleague and on clients of Yooralla, who were raped and abused, and on the purchasers of defective Volkswagens. All of them – one a very commercial transaction, one a service/client relationship and one a more personal interaction between colleagues in a profession – involve a breach of trust.
Doctors and carers are meant to be “caring professionals” not people who drug and assault their colleagues, nor rape people in their care. Disability service providers are there to protect their clients not ignore their complaints. Multinational car companies that sell millions of vehicles are meant to be honest corporate citizens who observe the rules and don’t break the law. They are not meant to try deliberately to circumvent legislation designed to reduce pollution.
You will never see it coming
And it seems so unfair when you as a fundraiser or car salesperson have done nothing wrong and suddenly, because of some few bad apples, your job is made so much harder. It may not even be your brand of car, or cancer foundation (it could even be a different cancer or medical research body) or disability service provider. Your organisation (car company, service provider) doesn’t behave that way. You may never have heard of Professor Kearsley. Suddenly, the proverbial has hit the fan, and you are ducking for cover. Don’t duck. Cop it sweet. This is where your crisis management process kicks in.
- Have a plan
It’s too late when a person has been charged or the tests have been checked and found defective to develop a crisis management plan. That is something you have to do when the sky is blue; the birds are singing, and the donors and car buyers are parting with their hard earned.
- Appoint one person to talk about the issue
- Make it someone’s job to speak to everyone concerned. In your plan, make sure everyone knows what they need to know. These may be staff, the board, volunteers, regulators, clients and the general public (via the media).
- Don’t be stingy about information because the crisis involves fraud, rape, assault or any other nasty event.
- Treat every person who has questions with respect
- Treat every question (even after you’ve heard it 43 times) as important
- Answer all the questions.
- If you can’t answer the questions, say that you can’t and that you will come back to the questioner.
- Here’s a big tip, get back to the questioner with the answer as soon as you have it
- And make it quick.
- Say you are sorry (if it’s your organisation)
If it is your organisation at the root of the problem say
- You are sorry that you haven’t met the standards required
- You are cooperating with authorities,
- And what you are doing to prevent it happening again.
- Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat until you start to see some sunshine.
This could take a while; years depending on how bad it was in the first place.
If it’s not your organisation that is the cause of the problem
- Talk about the safeguards and measures that are in place to prevent such a thing happening
- Agree to scrutiny anyway
- Post your policies regarding the issue on your website
- Offer a helpline for clients or customers
- Swallow the frog
Mark Twain used to say that if you have to swallow a frog, do it in the morning. Get the nasty stuff out the way as soon as possible. Address the issue and get on with the rest of your day/plan/life.
- If you have to say one of your trusted founders has admitted to a criminal charge, say it. Say you’re sorry. Say what you are doing about it.
- If you’ve been found out in widespread corporate fraud, put your hand up, admit what’s gone on, say what you are doing about it.
- This is not the time to listen to your lawyers who want you to admit nothing because you could cop it. You are going to cop it – so do it bravely, early and comprehensively.
- Continue to communicate until the crisis is passed
There is a great scene in The West Wing where Arnie, played by Alan Alda, who has been championing nuclear power as a clean, safe fuel stands in front of a nuclear power plant where there’s been a nasty nuclear accident and answers journalists’ questions on his stance until they run out of questions. Be that person. Be Alan Alda, be Arnie Vinick.
- Start getting back on message
Keep talking about your cause, your foundation, the great service you provide and the outstanding cars you build (notwithstanding the nasty hiccough).
But this step needs to be treated with caution. If you talk too soon about your good stuff, people won’t believe you because of the bad stuff. If you don’t talk about your good stuff, people will only talk about your bad stuff.
See if you can get others talking about your good stuff – not to refute the bad stuff, but to balance it.
If I were advising Volkswagen, I’d get motoring writers churning out column inches on their long love affair with Golf or Passat or Audi.
If I were the communications manager at Yooralla, all my case studies and communications this year would focus on great stories of care that have been going on for years – I’d be making it appear as if great care and wonderful service are the norm (which they probably are).
If I were the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, I’d be getting family stories out there about prostate cancer survivors and how they and their families were doing so well because of the research that has happened as a result of PCFA’s fundraising efforts. I’d be using female researchers fronting the story, and I’d be getting videos of families and these wonderful women on as many social media channels as I could.
- Remember Vivien Leigh’s advice
In the closing scene of Gone with the Wind, where Vivien Leigh as Scarlett has just had a big bust up with Rhett Butler played by Clark Gable, Leigh says: “After all, tomorrow is another day”.
It doesn’t sound like great advice but it’s very practical.
You may have survived the PR-equivalent of the American Civil War on the losing side but you still have the cause you believe in.
It was and still is a worthwhile cause and, ultimately, one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl!