Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taking the high road: Can you get out in front of negative issues?

If your organization is facing a truly negative issue that hasn't become public yet, a lot of conversation will focus on defensive questions like "What if this gets out? What will we say? What questions will we face? What will happen next?" But how often do you and your management frame the question to ask "Can we get out in front of this issue and become a good example?"

When discussing strategies with my clients, I find that question's missing from the discussion around a crisis topic, more often than not. It gets pushed aside by damage control and the desire to minimize, rather than air, dirty laundry. But for the companies and organizations that understand how to take the lead on a negative issue, the rewards can be great. And the road is littered with those who stayed behind a defensive bunker and spent years undoing the damage when the issue became public....or the institutions that were caught unprepared when their motives were questioned after a negative event became public.

Last year, the issue of sexual assault on university campuses was thrown into high relief by two campuses with very different approaches. Yale University, where students filed suit about sexual harrassment, is under investigation for possible violations of federal Title IX, went largely silent about its case, issuing written statements to the media and a report that critics said didn't go far enough in its recommendations for change. But conditions on campus were such that when Good Morning America went to campus to interview female students on the quad, male students yelled expletives heard on the broadcast; you can watch the video at the link. No Yale officials appeared in that story, issuing a written statement instead.

Contrast that with the University of New Hampshire, which, like many universities, knew it had its own problems with sexual harrassment. It took a different approach by conducting research on rape on campus, creating prevention and awareness programs and more, making the issue public in an effort to reduce campus sexual harrassment. The White House chose UNH for a visit by the vice president and the education secretary when they kicked off a nationwide campaign about sexual assault awareness, calling the university a "model for the country." Yale was featured in the coverage, too, but not as a model.

Yale's approach is typical for an institution responding to a lawsuit and a federal investigation: closed, contained and careful. But even if there were no investigations, many companies and institutions do the same when there's an ongoing problem or issue. From coverage of the UNH model:
“Sexual assault is a problem that most universities deal with in silence,” said Victoria Banyard, a professor of psychology at UNH who directs its Prevention Innovations: Research and Practices for Ending Violence Against Women on Campus and serves as an advisory board member at its rape crisis center. “There’s always been an ambivalence about dealing with this. But it happens everywhere. If we can acknowledge the problem, we can be so much more effective at addressing it than if we just pretend it’s not our problem.” “Every school has this problem,” said Alison Cares, an assistant professor of Criminal Justice & Criminology at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “No school wants to admit it.”
Here are the advantages I see in the UNH approach:
  • Going public for more than just publicity's sake: In its case, UNH went public for a more important reason than image. Making the issue of sexual assault public was a safety first choice, with the kudos coming later.
  • Status as a rare but available example: Getting out in front of the issue, in public, meant UNH was one of a handful of choices the White House had when looking for an available example to underscore the new guidelines being issued on the topic. Any institution also working on the issue, but behind the scenes, didn't have that chance. 
  • Smart positioning: UNH can better answer questions about whether it's doing enough to protect students, how it will handle any future assaults should they occur, and make its prevention program a safety selling point. Taking a point of view on the issue also makes it easier for UNH to position itself as a thought leader on the issue, with speaking engagements, op-eds and more.
  • The relief of being able to answer the questions: At many organizations, the best they can hope is that nothing gets out and no one asks about stinky issues--because they don't have great answers for them. When you get out in front of the issue, you can be forthright and transparent, as long as the substance is there to stand on.
  • The absence of smugness: Colleges and universities are frequently criticized for ivory-tower, superior attitudes. Here, I don't get a whiff of that--in fact, the approach seems to be "this could happen anywhere" rather than "we cornered the market on a solution." That comes from being careful not to brag too much about being out in front on what is, after all, a negative.
You may be at a company grappling with a labor issue or a contaminated batch of consumer products, a lab grappling with animal rights issues or a nonprofit with an executive compensation or tax issue. No matter where you are, you need to put a lot of thought behind the choice to get out in front of the most difficult negative issues. Of course it's better if you start thinking about this approach before you need to do so--and perhaps just as important for communications directors is introducing this as an option to your management. Add a question about "should we think about getting out in front of this as a leader?" to your back pocket for management discussions, or for when you're scanning the landscape for what's next on the horizon. I'd love to hear your good examples of companies and organizations that got out in front of a problem in a smart way, in the comments. (Photo by Jose Gil /

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