Variety magazine is writing about the CBS public relations crisis surrounding the sexual misconduct allegations against CEO Les Moonves. Many of you reading this blog could be faced with similar allegations against one of your executives and wondering what you should do and how you should handle such a potential crisis. This requires both expert crisis management and expert crisis communication.
Variety asked for my thoughts as a crisis communication expert. My quote to Variety is identical to expert crisis management and crisis communication advice I would share with all of my clients. It begins with deciding a proper course of action and then sharing a sincere statementthat explains what you are doing and why. CBS has said they will leave Moonves in his position while they investigate. I would have gone one step further and asked Moonves to take a leave of absence during the investigation. Trust me, he won’t really be doing his job well with the weight of the accusations and the negative publicity of the crisis. This is the crisis management phase.
First, you should consider the perspective of the crisis. People believe they were hurt and want justice, while someone has been accused. Without a confession, it becomes a situation that requires a third-party investigation. This is the personification of “she said; he said.”
Secondly, consider that this is a highly volatile topic and that the #MeToo movement evokes strong opinions. There will never be a 100% agreement on how to handle such matters.
Thirdly, in business, the decision makers must remember the saying, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” Hence, when multiple accusers come forth with similar allegations, it is logical to assume the accused person is likely guilty. But lost in many sexual misconduct cases is the basic American principle that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. CBS, however, is following that principle.
My crisis management advice to any company facing allegations against an executive would be to ask the executive to take a leave of absence with pay while an investigation is conducted. My crisis communications advice would be that such a move must be accompanied by a thoughtful and sincere statement, such as:
“Because of the sensitivity of the allegations being made, we feel the best course of action is to conduct a thorough investigation. Because such investigations can prove disruptive to the day-to-day operations of the organization, we have asked the accused individual to take a leave of absence until the investigation is completed. Once the investigation is completed, we will share our findings with you.”
Of note in this modern age of frequent sexual misconduct allegations, employers would be well served to work out the logistics of such a leave agreement, during the hiring and contract phase of onboarding any new executive. Take your cue from police departments, who take an officer off of the street after a shooting, while an investigation is conducted. Some police officers are put on desk duty while others are put on paid leave. The police departments know that a distracted officer should not be on the street with a gun. Likewise, a distracted CEOshould not be making decisions that affect the reputation and revenue of the company.
Finally, remember that the time to address your crisis management and crisis communication plan of action is to make these hard decisions on a clear, sunny day, when you have clarity of thought. The best time to deal with a crisis is before the crisis happens.
About the Author: Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in new New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”