How to Handle an Accusation: Six Essential Steps

For those who long for effective government and civil discourse, political campaign years are rarely something to look forward to.  But for those interested in branding, and particularly the relationship between branding and trust, it is a season ripe for study.  Politicians are brands.  And what they are “selling” is trust.  

How these brands are created and promoted is a subject best left to the political scientists.  But the campaign process also offers insight into surviving an attack on your brand’s reputation. In an age when accusations of wrongdoing are easily made and rapidly spread, how should you respond to an allegation of wrongdoing?  Handle it well and your reputation can actually benefit (think Tylenol, 1982). Handle it poorly and that may be all she wrote (think Arthur Andersen, 2002)…

I hope you never find yourself in such a situation (and my main work is to help ensure you don’t!).  But should an accusation of wrongdoing occur, here are a are a few suggestions for your response:

  1.  Act quickly, respectfully and in proportion to the accusation.  If word is on the street that your brand has done harm, silence is rarely wise.  Speak to the issue as quickly as you can, and be sure to do so respectfully and fairly.  And whatever you do, don’t mock the accuser.  The charges may seem ridiculous or malicious to you, but the rest of the world is not inside your organization.   Let people know that your brand’s integrity is essential to you, that you will see that the matter is investigated, and if there is a problem, it will be rectified.  A quick, honest word is the fastest way to get the 24-hour news cycle on your side.
  2.  Seek wise counsel.  Every great leader has a team of advisors and so should you.  Get trusted friends, mentors and colleagues to weigh in – especially those outside your organization.  Things can get myopic under stress, so be sure to get some perspective from those who’s moral compass you respect. (Surely you’ll need to consult your legal counsel, as  accusations often come with the threat of financial liability.  But be thoughtful about the advice you take.  Sometimes it’s worth a little legal risk for the opportunity to speak plainly.  More than a few medical malpractice cases have been resolved with a sincere apology…)  
  3.  Have a command of the facts.  Watching Herman Cain the last few days has been especially painful on this front.  He may be entirely innocent of the sexual harassment allegations against him (though that is looking less likely), but his equivocation definitely communicates duplicity or incompetence or both.  If you are in the C-suites and there is an accusation against your brand, you are going to be asked about it (regardless of how many PR people you have). And “I don’t know the details,” will sound like a dodge.  So know the facts and be prepared to speak to them directly.
  4.  Be thorough.  Good campaign managers know to do “opposition research” on the own candidates – they need to know what’s wrong before everyone else does.  So within the organization, don’t settle for answering the singular allegation.  Be sure there isn’t another shoe about to drop.  No matter how brilliantly you manage one allegation, if another comes along in its wake, you will be assumed to be guilty of both.
  5.  Be as transparent as possible.  As we’ve discussed before, transparency is essential to trust.  Show what you’ve done to investigate, make people available for interviews, disclose documents if you can.  If an honest investigation reveals no wrongdoing, transparency will make the results believable.  And no matter how innocent you prove to be, a lack of transparency will lead many to believe you are covering up.  
  6.  If your organization is in the wrong, own up.  Nobody is perfect and good customers understand.  What good people won’t tolerate is a refusal to take responsibility (think Bill Clinton). So if there is a problem, acknowledge it and immediately begin the work of making it right.  Nothing says “trustworthy” like the willingness to confess a wrong followed by the honest effort to make a repair.

Whether the candidates will take such advice, I don’t know.  But I do know that good customers reward integrity. And the best businesses are built by serving the best customers.



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