PR response to sexual harassment - Dooley PR


How can you recover from crisis involving sexual harassment or assault in your workplace?

What you permit, you condone.

Oh my, what a disgusting, awful mess the entertainment, media and political industries finds themselves in. Accusations continue to fly labeling some of the most powerful men in Hollywood and Washington, DC, as sexual and serial abusers of employees, potential employees and colleagues (almost all of whom are women).

The situation has made us think more about how we would counsel a corporate client who was dealing with a similar situation. What if one of your executives has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women who reported to him or who he had power over? What should you do?

As it happens, about two months ago, we ran a client through this kind of scenario during some executive media training. We were asked to come up with a situation that would specifically test the human resources department.

We came up with this sexual harassment scenario:

A former female employee has accused her former male manager of continuous sexual harassment during her time in his department. She brought her complaint to the human rights tribunal, which resulted in a flood of additional complaints into human resources from other women who had worked with the same manager. The complaints were all of a similar nature. He belittled the women in his office constantly, made lewd jokes of a sexual nature about them and engaged in regular, inappropriate intimate touching. Your human resources department is aghast and says they’ve never suspected anything was amiss. There had never been any complaints before. But the complainants say HR should have known and, the fact that the manager was considered to be a star performer and a favourite of the CEO, meant that they didn’t want to rock the boat and come forward. The tribunal is meeting today and the media have called for comment.

As we’ve seen recently, this scenario is not far-fetched at all. I’m sure it, or something similar, is taking place in corporate Canada all the time. The victims tend to quit, find a new position elsewhere or soldier on and put up with the abuse, hoping it will eventually stop.

So what can you do?

Companies are responsible for ensuring they offer safe workplaces.

The classic formula for responding to situations like these is to:

  1. Acknowledge and accept the situation
  2. Take action such as firing the abusive employee
  3. Apologize unreservedly
  4. Tell people what you’ve done in response
  5. Then tell people what you’ve done to make sure this will never happen again

I don’t think that’s enough in this case and others like it where the accusations clearly identify a source of rot in an organization. If multiple people say ‘you should have known because it was obvious to all of us’, then they’re probably right. Acknowledge that they are shining a light on a major problem in your organization.

It’s important for Canadian companies to understand that they have a legal obligation to provide workplaces that are free from harassment of any kind. This is not optional.

This puts the onus on corporate leadership to take swift action when they get a whiff of harassment and bad behaviour. It may be difficult to confront an unruly employee or executive, but it’s your responsibility to do so. It’s also the right thing to do. As in most cases, good PR means doing what’s right.

Maybe the best way out is to treat this as an opportunity to fix the problem and create a stronger, more resilient and healthy organization. When dealing with crises like this, I feel it is imperative that our clients take a long, honest look at their cultures. You may have good and honorable people running your company (I sure hope so), but even good and honorable people can make mistakes. They can turn a blind eye to people and things that need more oversight and examination. But why is that so? The answer will almost always lie in your company culture.

What you permit, you condone

If your corporate leadership permits people to swear at your customers and wear dirty, ripped clothes to work, then that’s the culture of the place. Everyone will come to know that’s the culture, even the employees who don’t really want that to be the culture. They won’t speak up against the worst offenders, because if the boss doesn’t care, why should they?

It’s a short stroll back to our crisis scenario of sexual harassment. If the organization allows an individual or group to behave in a certain way, they are tolerating that behaviour as part of the culture. If star managers can behave a certain way because they are stars, then don’t expect their direct reports to come running to human resources with tactful complaints about them.

Responding to cultural rot

If your organization faces a situation like this, it’s vital to embark on a complete top-to-bottom cleansing where a company can reset expectations. That will usually involve holding frank and open discussions with employees and all levels of management. It will certainly mean the CEO and other senior executives will need to lead by example. They must actively point out when someone is behaving counter to the company culture (lest they let the behaviour become the culture).

And this doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment claims. The same kind of cultural rot can set in around workplace safety, customer service, even expense claims.

The best-case response to our media training scenario is to have the CEO lead an investigation into the corporate culture; to put his or her foot down and say clearly that this will not be tolerated, then become the example that he or she should have been in the first place.

You can’t “spin your way out of this”

Ghomeshi’s reputation was in tatters after his much publicized trial. Even though the CBC fired him, its brand suffered because of a perception that it allowed abuse to go on.

Now that is something your PR people can work with. That’s a genuine story of an organization doing what is right in a difficult circumstance. It’s a story of recognizing your faults, addressing them and emerging from the crisis a stronger organization. In cases like these, people sometimes think the role of PR is to “spin” the truth about what happened, which is absolutely not what reputable PR agencies do. We would never represent a client that was trying to tell half-truths, or help them craft messages knowing they weren’t doing the right thing (please feel free to read our code of conduct).

Here’s a good example: Jian Ghomeshi hired Navigator Ltd. to help him with crisis communications after the initial allegations of assault surfaced in 2014. Navigator ended up firing Ghomeshi as a client — the subtext is because he lied to them. Moral of the story is, good PR agencies don’t help liars.

The Ghomeshi case – like the Matt Lauer situation at NBC – is one where executives seemingly turned a blind eye to the misbehaving “star employee.” News reports (like this one) about both situations indicate that executives at both broadcasters were allegedly alerted to potential problems, but they chose to ignore them. Presumably program ratings were more important than maintaining a healthy workplace.

Can the stars reclaim their image?

Time will tell. For some, I think the damage to their personal brand is so severe that they’ll be lucky to work in their field again. It’s hard to imagine Kevin Spacey getting work on a film set any time soon when producers are busy editing him out of films he’s already shot.

There’s always a chance at redemption though. Humans are a forgiving lot and we like to give people second chances especially if they show contrition and signs of rehabilitation. So it’s possible that Spacey might come back in a few years and enough of us will forgive him that he can have that second chance. After all, there are countless examples of people with terrible reputations continuing to have successful careers in the public eye. (Even Mel Gibson is working again.)

What happens when it’s the founder?

If allegations prove true, NBC’s Matt Lauer is an example of a company permitting a “star employee” to behave badly.

Organizations such as NBC will almost certainly withstand the damage the Lauer scandal will do to its reputation. We all hope they take action to prevent similar situations from occurring again. Companies in that situation may consider establishing a whistle-blower protocol where lower ranking employees have some way to bring complaints forward without fear of reprisal.

The much more difficult situation is when the rogue executive is the founder. By all accounts Harvey Weinstein was an imposing character who would push people around with the sheer force of his bombastic, vitriolic personality. He may have run the company with his brother, but he was its public face. He was its character. He was the company. How does a company like that continue when the founder who was in charge of its culture goes so badly off the rails? At the time of this writing, Weinstein is facing criminal investigations in multiple jurisdictions too.

The damage done to The Weinstein Company is, in my opinion, likely fatal to it. It’s hard to see how the company can come back from such a sordid and debilitating scandal. Any goodwill the company had is almost certainly gone leaving it only with its physical, human and intellectual property assets. They are probably worth something to the right buyer. The company – or rather some of its employees – may find new life merged into another one.

If they want to soldier on, they’ll need to clean house. The people and policies of old need to be completely renewed.

Lies are almost always found out eventually

The moral of this story is that lies and disgusting behavior are almost always found out in the end. As the New York Times recently reported, Weinstein used a multitude of tactics to keep accusations against him out of the media. He employed private detectives and gossip reporters to dig up dirt. He threatened legal action. He threatened to destroy careers. He attempted to bribe. In some cases, he’d settle out of court.

But look at him now. There’s no amount of PR that can save his reputation.

Everyone knew

I’ll leave the last word here Scott Rosenberg, a screenwriter who worked with Weinstein on a series of films. He contends that “Everyone f**king knew” about Harvey. And by everyone, he means everyone in Hollywood.

So this isn’t just a scandal about one company or a handful of guys behaving badly. Men with a sense of entitlement so large that they thought they could do anything to anyone and get away with it. No, this is a scandal for an entire industry to deal with. I hope we’ll see the leaders come forward soon. The studio executives who will clean house and make things right. It doesn’t matter if they are men or women (though having a few more women in positions of Hollywood power surely couldn’t hurt). It just matters that they do the right thing.

Private, customized executive media training

If you want to discuss media training for your executives, give us a call (204-415-0688), or send us a message through the contact form on our website. We offer media training for individuals and for groups of up to 20 people, and we create custom scenarios to fit your organization, teach you how to handle even hostile questions and deliver effective interviews.

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About the author

Adam Dooley has more than 25 years of public relations and corporate communications experience. He’s developed and executed regional, national and international PR campaigns. He’s also called in regularly to help clients through crises.

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