No Good Deed: Pressure Cooker Captive

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

The Dilemma du Jour:

I’m vice president of communications and marketing for a national company in a highly competitive industry. Recently, we’ve been criticized in the media for what some perceive as aggressive or even misleading sales techniques and there’s grumbling from customers, as well as from our employees. Some have even given anonymous interviews about ‘the pressure to produce’ and others have posted very negative stories on their personal social media. Our senior leadership doesn’t seem as concerned about our employees as I think they should be. I’ve been told to leave it to our Human Resources department, but it seems to me it’s both an external and internal communications issue. What can I do?

Signed, Pressure Cooker Captive

What our panel had to say…

This wouldn’t be the first time that an organization lost sight of the need to maintain a good corporate image in the pursuit of revenue.

It sounds like you think (and maybe correctly) that circumstances dictate a change in direction. The challenge is to determine whether there is any threat to the company’s reputation and any potential to affect future sales, staff loyalty or government intervention, and then convince your C-suite of the danger.

I’d start with an internal audit of sales practices. What are the guidelines? Are they reasonable? Do they pass the ‘sniff test’ for being ethical as well as legal? And are they being adhered to in practice? Next, I’d look at the external perception with media and customer research. Are the media stories accurate? What do customers think about these stories and about the way you have been promoting sales? Finally, do you see any early evidence of how these stories could impact sales and brand trust?

The trick is to determine where the line is in terms of legal, ethical and acceptable business practice, while not unduly restricting creativity in product promotion and methods that help your employees ‘close the deal’. As you know: if you push acceptable social norms too far, you risk incurring the wrath of unhappy publics that can significantly affect profitability.

~ Scott Jackson, APR Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

This is why they pay you the big bucks: you see what's on the horizon and you know the potential impact this has for the organizational reputation they've hired you to protect. Your employees are the public faces and voices of your organization and absolutely integral to building and protecting your reputation. Talk to your leadership about impact. Find and share comparable examples of situations where public airing of employee discord led to reputation and organizational issues (e.g. recent contretemps about automatic contract renewals in the banking and telecommunications industries comes to mind). 

If the phrase "where there's smoke, there's fire," applies here you'll need engagement and commitment at ALL levels of the organization to address the challenge and that has to start at the top. Is your leadership’s suggestion that you to leave it to HR a sign they may not recognize their own role in all of this? If that's true, you need to ask yourself if you think the leaders are capable of getting to a place where they understand their role in building an environment in which employees feel respected and valued for their work. If the answer is no, it won't matter what you do, and it's time to look elsewhere for work. 

While leaving it to HR alone is not an option, working with HR on engagement strategies to truly understand and identify solutions is the best way forward. Communications 101 teaches us that the most important audience for every organization is its employees. If your leadership team doesn't understand or isn’t committed to that principle, you're wasting your time.

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, Senior Program Manager, Donation and Transplant, Canadian Blood Services

Time to pull off your muzzle, Captive, and do what you do best: help your company put its best foot forward. Anytime your organization’s reputation is under fire in the media, it’s your job to mitigate the damage where you can. By virtue of sheer numbers, big companies will have at least some unhappy customers and dissatisfied current or ex-employees. Those cases aren’t always the company’s fault and the odd story highlighting people’s negative experience isn’t going to have much impact on a national player. But as you know, perception is reality and stories that ‘stay alive’ about cutthroat business practices will prompt employee churn and drive revenues down. Any senior leadership team worth its salt should care about that.

Gain support for your position by demonstrating the business case for responding to the mounting negative coverage. To inform your proposed response, connect with HR and find out how – or at least if – they plan to address the allegations. Will there be an investigation? If so, get approval to release both internal and public statements speaking to your company’s commitment to quality offerings and customer care, pointing out that the organization takes this so seriously an internal investigation is underway. That will slow the reputational haemorrhaging, but it also puts the onus on your company to report back at some point and to implement any necessary changes.

If senior leadership refuses to let you speak out, they may be hiding shady but lucrative business practices they actually don’t want to change. In that case, you might need to ask yourself if that’s the kind of company you want to represent.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.