Potential disaster headed off by strong crisis communication
Ethical reporting has been a hot topic recently, and this quote, from a PRDaily article by Gil Rudawsky, describes a perfect case study for media organizations to preserve a paper’s reputation and come to the unfortunate realization that one of their writers or reporters has been less than honest. When The Cape Cod Times discovered that reporter Karen Jeffrey had made a habit of fabricating sources, they made the difficult decision to print the whole story in what we say was a brilliant crisis management move.
The Cape Cod Times covered the news like it would any other breach of ethics. In a 1,024-word apology to readers, editor Paul Pronovost and publisher Peter Meyer (in a bylined story) offered a complete look at how they found out about the fabrications—including examples of her fabricated sources—while trying to explain how it happened. They noted that the reporter no longer works for the paper.
“How did this happen? Or more important, how did we allow this to happen?” Pronovost and Meyer wrote. “It’s a question we cannot satisfactorily answer. Clearly we placed too much trust in a reporter and did not verify sourcing with necessary frequency.”
Taking a page from classic crisis communication strategy, they offered a personal apology without making any excuses and holding themselves to the same scrutiny as the paper does other members of the public:
“This column is our first step toward addressing what we uncovered. We needed to share these details, as uncomfortable as they are, because we are more than a private company dealing with a personnel issue—we are a newspaper and we have broken our trust with you. We deeply regret this happened and extend our personal apology to you.”
The reporter in question was found to have been inventing sources dating back to some point in the 1990’s, with Cape Cod Times editors admitting that they have been unable to locate at least 69 “sources” used in 34 stories, and they aren’t even looking at dates prior to 1990, when the paper’s articles began to be digitized. While many organizations’ first instinct upon discovering an inside problem is to bury it, The Cape Cod Times was able to both honor the journalistic ethics code and turn what could have been a seriously damaging discovery into a way to elevate its status as a trusted source among readers. By essentially telling readers that they knew they’d messed up and were awfully embarrassed about it, the paper positioned itself as well-intentioned and honest in the court of public opinion.
No matter what your organization does, when you find a problem the very last thing you want to do is bury it. If you behave dishonestly then (and this may come as a shock to some people out there!) you are dishonest, and that stigma will follow you regardless of what colorful story you piece together to explain your actions. Stakeholders can accept that you made a mistake, especially if you put a human face to your admission as The Cape Cod Times did with its editor and publisher, but they are much less understanding when they find that they’ve been deliberately duped. It may be more difficult in the short term, but, and we’re speaking from experience, the end result will be much more positive.
For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management
[Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]