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March 6, 2017

How To Protect Reputation In The Age Of Leaks

Most companies hire PR agencies to help them get out positive news. But what happens when the juiciest stories about a business aren’t flattering? What, if anything, can a PR or corporate communications expert do to turn things around?

Consider Uber’s rough ride of late. First, a video of founder Travis Kalanick arguing with a driver made the rounds on social media, prompting Kalanick to issue a rare and soul-searching admission that he needs to “grow up.” Then a far bigger and more damaging Uber story broke; according to documents provided to The New York Times, Uber has been using a secret app to deny rides to regulators in areas where its service is banned. This comes after Susan Fowler, who spent an eventful year as an Uber engineer, wrote a blog post detailing a culture of relentless sexual harassment, gender bias, and cutthroat competition at the company. And of course, Uber started the month in a storm of controversy after it was accused of crossing picket lines by drivers striking in protest of the president’s immigration order.

Each of these incidents is distinct, but all except one resulted from information supplied by Uber employees (or a contracted employee, as with the video posted by the Uber driver) and all are symptomatic of a corporate culture in dire need of change.

And Uber’s not alone in grappling with the impact of information supplied by its own people. Serious problems at one-time technology highflier Theranos were exposed by a series of investigative reports by John Carreyou of The Wall Street Journal. It wasn’t until months later that we learned (through Carreyou’s own riveting account) that his original tip had come from a whistleblower employee.

Institutionalized whistleblowing is typically about a serious and systemic problem. Last year the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it passed the $100 million mark for the payment of whistleblower awards, leading to $500 million in financial remediation paid by companies. So, incentives and protections for those with the courage to speak out about unethical or illegal business practices is enormously valuable.

But for ordinary organizations, trivial leaks of internal conversations or information can be problematic. Look at the White House. It can’t hold a meeting (especially one about leaks) that isn’t immediately leaked to the D.C. press. Journalists routinely feature their contact information on confidential app Signal or other secure platforms number on their Twitter feeds. In some ways it’s a healthy sign, but there’s also reason for an ordinary business to fear the reputation damage resulting from a leaked claim by a disgruntled employee or competitor.

What’s an honest company to do? That’s where internal communications and a culture of openness come into play. The more open you can be in the workplace, the more loyal employees are likely to be. Here are five ways to maintain a culture of transparency that can help prevent or minimize leaks, rumors, and misinformation.

Communicate regularly. Regular staff meetings are a simple step toward transparency for a midsized organization. They don’t need to be gatherings where questions on every topic are invited; in fact, that should come in a different venue reserved for airing concerns. But the simple fact that rank-and-file employees are in the know on things like new clients or projects, pending business, and other positive developments will make them feel connected. Some entrepreneurial companies fear weekly updates because they don’t want to open up on financials or other details of the business, but total transparency on financials isn’t necessary.

Share bad news honestly and quickly. If the news isn’t all good, it’s better that staff hear it from management directly, to quell rumors and distortions. Resist the temptation to sugar-coat bad news; mixed messages will not help the situation. Above all, after explaining why the client was lost or the employee was let go, focus on goals for the future to ensure everyone understands that management is committed to moving forward, and that they have a role to play.

Use feedback tools. These are valuable for everyday issues that may not warrant a complaint to HR, or for sensitive matters where anonymity will encourage honest responses about problems. Many companies find a weekly or quarterly feedback survey an invaluable tool for assessing morale, worker engagement, and overall satisfaction over time.  But it can also be an early warning system to help stem a problem before it becomes systemic. Check out these employee survey tools as a starting point.

Mean what you say and say what you mean. A common stereotype in the PR business is the boss who hypes everything so that problems are glossed over, or the executive who promises the world but delivers nothing. It’s a far better internal communications strategy to be generous with positive feedback and open with business information, but stingy when it comes to promised improvements. Commit to only those changes or perks that you know are feasible. If a group of employees speaks up about a difficult or ongoing issue, promise that it will be addressed or discussed, and stick to that schedule, but don’t commit to any fix that you can’t deliver.

Show, don’t tell. Well, do tell your employees what your company values are, and make sure every new hire understands your business code of ethics, but don’t stop there. Use small examples of your values in action to show them how they contribute to the business. It might be the staffer who gave credit to a colleague, or the accounting clerk who caught an error in your favor. Continuous communication of the daily decisions that represent an ethical culture is one of the best ways to self-police.

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