THE ETHICAL EDGE by Jon Entine

July/August 1999

Uh Oh! We Screwed Up, and the Press Is on the Phone!

Crises happen. It's inevitable. You're in business.

Perhaps you were scurrying to meet a Christmas deadline, sidestepped a safety-and-health precaution, and the final product didn't pass muster. Yet you shipped it out anyway, fearful of what a delay would mean to your business. Or a manager fired someone because of a personal disagreement, but lies and says it was for cause; here comes a nasty, public suit.

The crisis can be an out-and-out innocent screw-up or the result of cutting corners. But if the press calls, the bottom line is the same: What is the right thing to do?

From my perch as 'investigative' journalist, I've done dozens of exposÚs of companies, from corporate polluters to the wave of New Age companies that wear a green marketing label on their sleeves but sometimes have a difficult time delivering a quality product at a fair price.

So, what do you do when Jon Entine calls?  The best answer isn't always the most intuitive. Back in the late 1980's, Ben & Jerry's faced an awful problem. Over a period of months, the company faced a slew of complaints from customers who were finding crunchy tidbits in their ice cream, and they weren't  Brazil nuts. It was glass. Some filed suits. Managers scoured the production line and couldn't locate the problem. Finally, they got a tip: It was employee sabotage.

It seems that for all its pretensions of social responsibility, Ben & Jerry's had a terrible safety and environmental record. Worker injuries were sky high. But with demand soaring, safety was an afterthought, not nearly as sexy as saving the rainforest. Now it was paying a price and the press was snapping at its heels.

If Ben & Jerry's had acted in the best interests of its consumers, it would have notified health authorities and recalled their ice cream. All of it. Negative press, law suits, government investigations would undoubtedly have ensued. That could have been 'hasta la vista' for its carefully crafted brand reputation.

What did Ben Cohen and senior management do? They told employees not to tell anyone about the glass-filled ice cream. They did not report the mess to health authorities even though more incidents were reported. In direct violation of state law, they required each worker to sign a loyalty-oath. They threatened and cajoled. In the end, management never could find their culprits. It wasn't until years later, after an 'environmental audit' on Ben & Jerry's poor safety and health record was made public, and a cascade of bad press ensued, that it finally overhauled its internal operations.

I don't know if management even considered turning itself in, but in this case, what seems like the obvious right ethical choice may not be so obvious. Such a media feeding frenzy could have cost hundreds of jobs, maybe even killing Vermont's largest and highest profile company. Forget Ben Cohen's pocketbook for a moment; the repercussions on the community, on innocent workers and their families, could have been devastating.

In other words, responding to hostile press inquiries requires a delicate balancing act. Here are seven tips about dealing with the press during a business crisis:

    1. If it's an investigation of a rumored problem, don't return the phone call unless the reporter agrees to spell out what she knows. Reporters are sly by nature and often float scenarios. It could just be a fishing expedition. Don't throw her live bait.
    2. Consider any inquiry a 'wake up call.' Assume you do have a serious problem. You may have lost touch with customers or employees. Find out.
    3. Don't publicly denigrate critics, whether they are dissident employees, public or government watchdog groups, or journalists. Contentious responses escalate into messy "he said/she said" circuses, supplanting the original agony to become a far bigger headache.
    4. Don't expect those you consider 'friends' in the press to stand by you in your time of need, particularly if you show any defensiveness. Professional friendships have limits.
    5. Managing your reputation is Job One for every business. Apply a tourniquet to the negative publicity. Meet the press, in a controlled environment if possible. Announce that you take the crisis seriously. Then take it seriously, even if you think the issue is non-existent or over-blown. Whether it was a 'real' problem or not before, it certainly is now that the press has gotten hold of it.
    6. Style counts. Don't flog yourself or be shrill, but do tell your side of the story. If you're in the right, the truth will more than likely come out over time.
    7. Keep lines of communication open. If a solution is complicated and cannot be addressed satisfactorily in one briefing, keep everyone informed about your progress. Don't be afraid to admit that you made a mistake or that the proposed solution is itself caught in snags.

I can offer one paramount piece of advice. Meek-appearing journalists can turn rabid when they are lied to.  Even the response of silence is even better than lack of candor. Duplicity will come back to haunt you.

The press is relatively gentler on those who openly admit they screwed up. It's disarming. Although we may not become your friend, we will at least recognize that you have a conscience. That realization alone can be the difference between a hostile story and one that respects the sometimes awful choices that businesses face when handling a crisis.