The following article originally appeared in my regular column at Forbes.com:
As a communications professional, I was particularly struck by Howard Sklar’s article this week, Six Reasons Why You’re Going To Get Caught. Howard talks about the dilemma of companies who catch an instance (or even a pattern) of bribery or illegal contract negotiation in their ranks. After dealing with the situation, conpanies must also consider the decision to self-disclose the corruption to the DOJ. There’s a strong tendency in a situation like this to hope that if you caught a problem early and solved it quickly, you can avoid disclosure and hope you will never be caught.
Howard provides some very good points to show why not getting caught is becoming increasingly unlikely. I suggest every businessperson read his article even if you are a private organization that doesn’t face DOJ compliance concerns.
But I am highly struck by the way Howard’s points apply to PR and crisis communications as well.
For example, suppose an employee violates client confidentiality. In one of my earlier businesses, a well-meaning employee spilled the beans to her brother-in-law that the job he was vying for at a client company was about to be offered to somebody else. In a fit of emotion, the rebuffed applicant left a spate of voice mails for the hiring executive, hoping beyond hope to sway the decision before the formal offer was made.
The fallout was terrible. The executive who had told our agency about the impending offer in confidence was issued a strong warning. Our agency wasn’t fired; but the situation was dire. The young consultant who leaked the information learned a lesson she will never forget. While no laws had been broken, the company policies of both organizations had been breached in a highly unprofessional way.
In the era of social media and increasingly transparent press, virtually no bad deed goes unpunished. As Howard points out, your disgruntled employees, audit committees, competitors, vendors and suppliers, and potentially even your own friends can purposely or unwittingly become a part of the resulting bad reputation and press.
In the case of an illegal act, the decision to address the issue and properly report the results through whatever mechanisms are necessary is the prudent and good one, although good PR sensibilities should also come into play. Many good companies have blemished their reputations by going overboard in publicly flogging the offender in their efforts to distance themselves from an isolated (or even an accidental) misdeed.
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