Handle Your Scandal

When we think about bad publicity, it’s usually in the context of some outrageous scandal involving either politicians or celebrities. In some industries, any public attention is considered positive and treated as an indication of social relevancy. However, the adage of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” simply does not apply to public entities. Negative publicity can irreversibly damage a person or organization’s reputation depending on the severity of the situation, rendering the process of regaining the community’s trust nearly impossible. Given the omnipresence of social media and Internet access, bad press is guaranteed to travel far and fast.

So, what can your district do if it finds itself in the midst of public issue that is quickly becoming a scandal? Can you simply terminate the employment of the individual who has caused the problem? What if that person is the current district manager or fire chief? What if that person is an elected official? Additionally, what if the allegations are false? How should that be handled and how soon should you respond?

Before you can properly address the problem, the district will need to determine whether the incident in question was accidental, negligent, or intentional.

If a situation was accidental, a formal and sincere apology is in order. The resolution your district chooses to alleviate the situation, the tone in which the message is delivered, and the breadth and scope of plans that are in place to ensure it will never happen again all factor into the difference between a quick recovery or a slow death. Afterward, your district’s business relationships and possibly non-tax revenue may suffer, but it is important to move forward with the understanding that every future decision is an opportunity to reestablish your credibility.

In some rare cases, accidental scandals may leave an organization relatively unscathed, like the discovery of lead paint in Mattel’s products in 2007. Mattel is an internationally-recognized toy manufacturing company responsible for iconic products like Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, so the discovery of lead paint in their products could have been an unmitigated disaster from which the company might never have recovered.

Despite this, Mattel continues to manufacture children’s toys today. It just so happens that around the time this came to light, multiple Chinese production factories were being internationally scrutinized for their compromised production chains. Strangely enough, this offered a measure of protection to Mattel due to the public’s focus on the Chinese factories.

If the situation was a product of negligence, such as the case with Walmart paying its employees wages below the federal poverty level, financial reparations in addition to public apologies need to be made. Walmart has responded by raising its entry-level wages for different positions as well as wages for current employees. As it stands, Walmart continues to be one of the largest private employers in the country, but as this particular scandal has been ongoing for years, the company’s motives for raising wages are being questioned as speculation about restricting labor markets arise and comparisons to its more reputable competitors are made. Now, despite the reparations, the public’s trust in the company has suffered, and while that cannot be quantified, it can be tied to declining sales in the face of an improving economy.

Had Walmart addressed this situation at its inception several years ago, it may have been able to head off damage to its reputation. If your district doesn’t have one already, we recommend establishing an active social media presence. A platform like Twitter offers instant access to public opinion, lending you and your district a way of gauging the community’s mood, a way to detect if people are complaining about your district or its policies, and perhaps most importantly a way to respond.

Social media can also help your district’s image following an incident by keeping your community apprised of any operational changes or ongoing recovery efforts. This would be especially true during weather emergencies, park closures, boil water orders, or major fires.

For scandals borne out of the intentional act of an employee, managing the damage may prove far riskier, sometimes even necessitating termination of employment or a changing of hands in high executive positions. For example, in 2015, it was discovered that Volkswagen, the German automaker, had been purposefully using software hiding emission readouts for diesel engines.

The scandal resulted in the resignation and replacement of the company’s CEO. While the severity of the situation may oftentimes necessitate the removal of an executive or employee, we highly suggest that you consider this measure an absolute last resort and consult with counsel or with the Pool prior to taking any action. In this type of situation, it’s imperative that your district already have a crisis management process in place.

This typically involves a specific reporting structure as well as pre-approved messages to deliver to the public that can be quickly edited to fit the nature of the scandal. It’s also not a bad idea to have a variety of experts in your industry on-call; not only to help craft the appropriate response, but to help highlight any additional issues you may have overlooked.

Scandal Response Blueprint

While it is always best to be prepared for these situations before they arise with a thorough plan, below are five steps to help mitigate the damage which may help frame your own plan.

If your district already has a plan like this, we would love to see it and share it with others if you are willing. Email us for more information.

  1. Assess the Situation: Was the incident a byproduct of negligence, intentionally produced, or a result of an accident? You will need to determine the nature of the scandal before your district can officially respond. Despite that, never admit fault to anything until you have consulted the Pool and your district counsel. Handling a PR crisis does not necessarily mean surrendering your right to defend your actions or inactions.
  2. Acknowledge the Problem: Your district’s first official response needs to be delivered soon after the news breaks out. Be sure not to divulge everything from the onset; it is imperative that you have a complete picture of all of the facts surrounding the incident, which requires time. Immediate explanations can prove false later on. Also, pay attention to the tone of your delivery. Social media may be appropriate for this venue, but it may not be. At the very least you might use it to point the press toward where and when your more official statement might be released.
  3. Investigative Efforts: Determine what the cause was and what the ramifications are. The investigation needs to get at the root of the problem while identifying any other areas of business (operations and/or services) that may be at risk.
  4. Preventative Measures: Take time to discuss your solutions on how to keep the incident from reoccurring. Explain what precautions your district will implement moving forward.
  5. Crisis Management Process: If your district does not have one already, take this opportunity to create and apply a crisis management process. It can make a significant difference if you and your district already have a reporting structure, pre-approved messages, and a roster of experts ready for when a crisis occurs. Creating and maintaining social media platforms can also assist your district’s public relations. When it comes to scandals, it pays to be prepared.
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