Off the Record? Not Today

On January 24, 2011, a number of Toronto city police officers conducted a campus safety information session at York University’s Osgoode Hall. During the session, one of the officers suggested that a safety tip for women is to not “dress like sluts” if they wished to avoid sexual assault.

The next day an article appeared in Excalibur, York University’s community newspaper. The article quoted Ronda Bessner, assistant dean of York’s Juris Doctor Program (Osgoode Hall is York’s law school).

In the old days (i.e. pre-social media), the officer would have apologized and been reprimanded, and the story would have died. In the world of social media, the issue took on a life of its own, was bandied about in blogs, broke through the clutter, and became an international story three weeks later.

There are two lessons here. First, it is becoming more difficult for all journalists to break through the clutter, so their desire to do so will become increasingly more important than their desire to maintain a relationship with a single spokesperson—i.e. you.

Second, in an age where anyone with a smart phone can become a news photographer or anyone with a URL can become a blogger, poor decision-making and inappropriate behaviour have fewer and fewer places to hide.

We repeat: Nothing is ever off the record. Period.

Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still use this playbook to attempt to control the message. In my media training program, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years that the only thing you can control is what you say. That statement was true with newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in the early 1990s; it is doubly true in a world dominated by social media.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. at Navigator, Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it was a pile of crap. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying through their teeth. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability their stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from the poor decision-making that got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth 

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual’s or organization’s reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.”

Because of the way it bungled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation ends up in tatters.

And the stink sticks to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

Perhaps Dalhousie's Dentistry Students Should Step Up

If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the issue that erupted this week at Dalhousie University, you have to be shaking your head.

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On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.

And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”

Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.

Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.

University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?

Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.

Huh? Or should I say: duh?

Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.

Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.

As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.

What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.

Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.

(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)

While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.

More’s the pity, I say.

Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis

It’s not often that we have an event with two distinct crises at its core, but the issue of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”—the 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University—has provided us with just such a case.

On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.

From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.

These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.

In other words, no proof, no license.

Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.

I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.

As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.

In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.

With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.

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