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Aug 17, 2017

Notes on a Scandal

How to survive a reputational crisis.

Bad things happen. Sometimes they happen to bad people. Sometimes they happen to good people. And sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to prepare for them. In a long career of working with politicians and business leaders, I’ve seen decent people find themselves on the wrong side of a scandal. I’ve seen decent people criticized and mocked and abused for something outside their sphere of control. In such a situation it’s understandable—normal, in fact—to feel aggrieved. Who wouldn’t? But in my business, sympathy only goes so far in these situations: It’s action that is the order of the day.

Scandals now seem to happen all the time. In the modern world of search engines and social media—assuming you have a large enough profile—you are far more likely to be involved in a scandal than ever before. That doesn’t mean more people are doing more scandalous things—only that, if you have done something, you’re far more likely to be found out for having done them. And even if you have lived a blemish-free life (do people like that exist?), it only takes one vindictive rival or a bored social media troll to pretend you’ve done something disreputable and then con a few relevant people into believing it.

THE CASE OF UBER

Uber and its former CEO Travis Kalanick know about scandals. In 2014, it was Kalanick who was roundly criticized for making a sexist joke in an interview with Esquire. Since then, Uber has rarely been out of the papers. Employees were accused of spying on celebrities. There were allegations the company was spamming rival companies. An Uber executive even suggested digging up dirt on critical journalists. It was an Uber employee, Susan Fowler, who blew the whistle on the appalling treatment of women in Silicon Valley when she wrote a 3,000-word blog post in February chronicling the daily indignities she faced at the company. Kalanick held on and on, but this summer, he decided it was finally too much and announced that he would take an indefinite leave of absence.

Prevention is the best kind of cure. But for Kalanick and Uber, it was much too late for that. It was too late for them to do nothing, as well, which is often the most effective way to respond to a crisis. If that surprises you, you might not have heard of the Streisand effect, which refers to the time Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress photographs of her home and inadvertently drew far more attention to them than she would have if she’d done nothing. Believe me when I say that inaction is often the best form of action.

WHEN CRISIS STRIKES

But when crisis strikes and it’s no longer possible just to “ride out” the scandal, you need to mitigate the damage by checking the facts and shaping the narrative. Journalists may have a reputation for unscrupulousness, but in my experience, they are very cooperative if it turns out something they’ve written isn’t completely true. This affords you the opportunity not only to correct the original story but also to provide the journalist with quotes and other information that help to mitigate the damage. Once it becomes clear that the story won’t go away, it’s absolutely essential that you act fast and decisively before any remaining control of the story is snatched away from you.

For the highest-profile figures, meanwhile, preparation goes a long way. When a scandal hits, you need to arrange a meeting with your senior people and media trainer as soon as possible to establish the next course of action and a “party line.” If it’s a big story and lots of journalists are interested, it’s most effective to prepare a detailed statement that answers all the questions likely to come your way. Only after that statement has been pushed out on social media or the wires should you start to look for a handful of journalists likely to give you a fair hearing.

The field of play has changed. What worked 10 years ago doesn’t work now, and what works now may not work 10 years from now. As it is, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Don’t freeze if a reputational crisis strikes. Instead, think and then act, and steal the march on those who want to drag you into the mud.

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