Sometimes, the crises that can do the greatest harm to your company and its image are not the unknown and unexpected threats you can’t anticipate, but the “smoldering” issues that have long existed and that your team may be well aware of.
This is the subject Deborah Hileman, SCMP, and President and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management addressed with a packed room of attendees at the Richmond PRSA May Luncheon: #MeToo and Other Smoldering Crisis – How Bad Behavior Impacts Companies. Hileman is a crisis communications expert who has seen firsthand the damage that’s caused when long-existing scandals within an organization finally bubble to the surface. Her advice? Identify the issue and stop it in its tracks, long before it has the chance to ruin your company.
The #MeToo movement exposed quite a few C-level executives who had used their corporate power inappropriately and tried to get away with sexual harassment and predatory behavior toward members of their team, usually those in positions beneath theirs. Across all industries, many times over, we would hear the same story: the behavior would go on for years, they would victimize dozens of people, and all of it would be an open secret within the company. Now, even companies who have taken appropriate action against such executives have found it to be too little, too late to save their brands. Legal battles go on for years, and financial struggles continue even longer.
Hileman’s words on the matter invited the audience to consider: is anything like this happening within my organization, or those I represent? Is someone’s poor or predatory behavior being overlooked? If I don’t stop it now, does it stand to get much worse? And most importantly, how do I stop it?
Corporations often have tools already in place to catch these “smoldering” issues, they just need to be put to better use. During regular reviews, executives should prioritize an assessment of company culture and conduct along with job performance. They should also ensure that their human resources department is not only listening to employees’ concerns, but looking into situations that could turn into complaints. They need to have a very clear and enforced code of conduct for their company, so all staff know what appropriate boundaries are and when someone else has crossed them. Finally, they can’t be afraid to have frank conversations about behavior with even the most senior executives. No one wants to see a crisis irreparably damage their company, and they should know if something they’ve turned a blind eye to could be a much bigger threat than they expect.
As PR professionals, it’s our job to manage the public reputations of the organizations we represent, and it isn’t always easy – but it can be made much easier by being proactive and stopping a problem before it becomes a crisis.