Scandal Management: Any Lessons for Human Resources?

March 11, 2008

Today’s headlines about Governor Eliot Spitzer’s link to a prostitution ring recount another scandal involving a high level government official. Spitzer attempted to “manage” the scandal by calling a press conference, his spouse at his side, apologizing for his behavior and describing the rest as a “private matter”.   After this "ritual of repentance", Spitzer is “weighing his resignation”. To this, I refer back to a statement attributed to  Representative Dick Armey who was asked if he had been in President Clinton’s place after the Monica Lewinsky scandal would he have resigned? He purportedly responded: “If  I were in the President’s place I would not have gotten a chance to resign. I would be laying in a pool of my own blood, hearing Mrs. Armey say : ‘How do I reload this damn thing?’”

While I don’t advocate this approach, an organization’s or individual’s response to a scandal can make or break it.  Human Resources professionals may be called upon in times of turmoil to be the spokesperson for the organization. I have no training in public relations, but from a legal perspective here are some things I can say don’t play well for future litigation:

  • The “categorical denial” that proves otherwise like “I never had sexual relations with that woman”.
  • Legalistic answers like those that turn on the definition of “is”.
  • Opinions offered without facts or investigation.
  • Any comments made by a company official in handcuffs or an orange prison jump suit.

Occasionally, I will get contacted by a company facing adverse publicity.  Here are some general rules that I remind clients when they call in a crisis:

  • Consider the quick engagement of a PR firm.
  • You don’t have to say anything and that may be the best course.
  • Identify one spokesperson and tell everyone else to refer questions there.
  • Plan what you will say and provide a written press release
  • If you don’t know the facts, don’t speculate
  • If you don’t have something to say then don’t talk.
  • You don’t have to answer questions and be very careful if you do.
  • You can end a press conference of interview at any time, just try to do it gracefully.