As a crisis management counselor, I am often asked to wax poetic on every new sultan of sexual harassment. This is easy to do given the damning accusations released daily. Most people respond with shock and wonder how it happened in the first place, why it was perpetuated, and why it wasn’t reported sooner. These are all natural, human reactions to something so deeply and painfully insidious.
What is NOT natural is malignant ignorance by a corporate body. This applies to 1) Turning a blind eye to the fact that it happened at all, and 2) Acting with feigned shock once it is revealed to the public. (Any business leader knows there are hundreds of legal and HR hours spent on one complaint before it is ever aired publicly, much less responded to, so save the “shocked” narrative.)
These are two recurrent themes we see in most every sexual harassment accusation and the corporate response, the latter of which is driven by legal teams facing the crushing weight of liability.
In my forthcoming book, Brand Under Fire: A New Playbook for Crisis Management in the Digital Age, I outline five key principles of effective crisis management, all of which can be tracked in each new accusation and response: 1) Authenticity, 2) Transparency, 3) Speed, 4) Agility and 5) Creativity.
But today I want to focus on perhaps THE most important one: Authenticity.
Anyone and any company can express remorse and still follow legal counsel. But it takes courage in the face of legal pressure to be authentic. Those willing to take a negative hit in the short term often come out on top in the long term.
Following the Matt Lauer madness, NBC’s real-time coverage of its own news was perhaps the best example of corporate risk mitigation doused in authenticity and compassion. While they played with the very delicate “we’re shocked” line – and not well, at that – the on-air talent and their delivery were sincere and befitting of the gravity of the situation. They didn’t write it off wholesale to toe the legal line.
My book addresses the present and dire need for the c-suite to re-evaluate it’s crisis strategy by shifting away from the legal lead. Sure, they need to act within the law and limit their liability – that’s just good business sense. But the challenge in modern crisis management is finding the best path away from falling on the legal sword, and instead leading with authenticity and humanity while also limiting liability.
Authenticity is not only measured in transparency and intention, it is measured in positive outcomes. What I’m looking for next is how, or even if, NBC Universal acts with the integrity and intention to correct its system of a down – one for which it has dedicated many news cycles criticizing others.
This is what I’m tracking:
- Will it go beyond an apology, and beyond check-box sexual harassment training, and implement systemic change?
- Where will this systemic change begin? With HR? With the c-suite?
- Who will lead it and ultimately see it through?
- What will that change look like?
- How will they program it?
- Is the change sustainable?
- Is it aligned with their corporate values?
- Do stakeholders regain trust in the company?
- And, when sexual harassment happens again, will their response be different?
Sexual harassment is a terribly dark side of the human condition, and it requires a very human response. If the Supreme Court can grant a corporation personhood, then corporate leaders should start responding like humans – with compassion, atonement, and sincerity. And then they should prove a change. Because an apology is only authentic if it is followed by meaningful and swift corrections.