Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM
Sex is not only in the news. It is the news. From the accusation of rape by Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, to the allegations of the blackmail of Jeff Bezos by the National Enquirer involving the now infamous below the belt selfie, tawdry tales are dominating headlines.
Sex scandals are not new. But in a world in which sex is discussed more openly, porn has never been more accessible, and women (and men) have been empowered to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault, sex has arguably never been more in the headlines. And, since these stories are among the most read, in the quest for clicks the lines between The New York Times or The Guardian and Cosmopolitan will continue to blur.
There was a time not that long ago, when both the discussion of sex and the glare of public scrutiny mostly stopped at the bedroom door. Clearly, that time has passed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a dark side.
In 2017, I wrote about sexual harassment and public relations in the context of the #MeToo movement – arguing it was time to throw stones in glass houses. That it was important for those who have been subject to abusive behaviors and assault to have the opportunity to tell their stories and have their day in court.
While it’s hard to imagine, given the unwanted attention sexual harassment or assault claims may draw, that a man or woman would choose to make an unfounded claim, or that others would use victims to achieve their goals, we must also acknowledge that motivations are not always pure.
The uncomfortable reality is that there are some who would use allegations as a weapon. Irrespective of motivation, all who come forward must be heard. But, what we must not do is engage in a public lynching of those who stand accused without due process.
When the mob rules, questions aren’t asked, the truth is not sought, and the alleged perpetrators or victims are simply taken to the woodshed, the risk of malign accusations to upend careers and lives grows. We must recognize that claims may be used to settle scores or seek vengeance and retribution. They may have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with politics or personal grievances.
We should not be surprised that sex is being weaponized. Irrespective of the truth of allegations and misbehavior, the Kavanaugh hearings marked a new low in scorched earth strategies to destroy those on both sides. Be they national figures or your neighbor next door, the accuser and the accused have a right to a fair hearing – whether it’s a citation for smoking weed or sexual assault.
When it comes to communications, this creates new challenges. Every CEO, executive and communicator risks finding themselves in the cross-hairs of accusation for actual or perceived transgressions they may or may not have committed today, yesterday, or as a student or teenager.
Planning for sex-related reputational crises is essential. If we take anything away from the Supreme Court nomination hearings, Virginia or other recent scandals, it is that anything to do with sex is a potent and explosive mix. Details, no matter how embarrassing or discomforting, will likely be shared in salacious detail. And, skeletons are unlikely to stay in the closet.
Business executives and other leaders must look within, as well as at their reports and companies, to consider past and present behaviors. Taking steps to ensure a zero tolerance for harassment, that employees have a safe environment and a place to turn to report inappropriate behaviors, are table stakes.
Anticipating potential risks, companies should develop plans for the way in which a crisis involving sexual allegation would be handled. Identifying experienced crisis communicators and other experts in sexual harassment and related issues, as well as having professionals with the sensitivity to listen to claims and evaluate them, are the keys to a professional and clear-eyed response in a crisis.
In the 24/7 news cycle, a company’s responses must reflect concern for the accuser, due process for the accused, and an over-riding commitment to get to the truth. Where sexual assault or harassment are found to have taken place, companies must act. Whether or not accusations are found to be credible, preparation is key to managing the fallout, and the ability to resist the howling of the mob for blood on either side.
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search, RFP, opinion survey tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.