Your Reputation at Stake: Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead of a Negative Story

Organizations often fall into the trap of not asking the right questions before they take action that affects their reputation. Another trap is asking the right questions but providing the wrong answer, then acting on it.

Take the recent case of a private school that announced it was acquiring a nearby property so it could consolidate its two campuses. The school is also connected with a religious movement known for compassion and simplicity.

So far so good, right? But the announcement appeared in the town’s daily paper. That in itself wasn’t remarkable. But the problem for the school was that it didn’t make the announcement. The newspaper did and in the form of a problematic story reporting that the property was occupied by a long-term care facility and hospice. Residents were the sick, the old, and perhaps the dying.

The future headlines could be imagined: “School for Kids Boots out Grandmas and Grandpas;” “School Known for Compassion Evicts the Elderly;” “Junior Gets the Best of Seniors;” “Granny’s Room to Become Homeroom;” “School Tells the Sick: ‘Don’t Die Before Leaving.’”

School officials seemed taken by surprise, and the story noted that “they were not immediately available for comment.”  That’s a nice way of saying, “No one in charge would talk to us, and it’s a shame, because they missed the opportunity to defend themselves.”

That window of opportunity may have closed.

When officials did respond, they sounded defensive and lawyerly. They pointed out, correctly, that the school was buying private property adjacent to the school’s property, and that the current owner was responsible for the residents. But even the facts smacked of the black-caped cartoon character Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache. Meanwhile, the story quoted a resident saying he was blindsided by the announcement and doesn’t know where he’ll end up living.

Public reaction was understandably negative with critics accusing the school—and by inference parents and students—of being heartless and elitist. A follow-up story featured school alumni criticizing school administrators for being tone deaf. The uproar died down, but has flared up again as neighbors weigh in on traffic and parking issues that will impact them. With each new flare up the school’s reputation is taking a hit, which could later include fewer alumni donations and prospective families looking elsewhere for their kids’ education.

How could it be avoided?

The first priority is to begin with the end in mind. Yes, the ultimate goal is to acquire property at an affordable price so separate campuses can be consolidated. But other important goals are to do the right thing for everyone touched by the purchase, and to avoid a furor that damages your organization’s carefully molded reputation. List the principles to operate by, which in this case required looking no further than the school’s admirable mission statement.

Write potential headlines

Avoiding some negative reactions may have been impossible because moving the sick and elderly is not like moving or closing a dry cleaner or gas station. But the first concern of the school administration after concern for the residents, family members and employees is to anticipate how this might affect the community. Remember that the press often serves the role of town ombudsman, and people call the news desk when they don’t know where else to turn, want to stop something from happening, or punish alleged wrong-doers. Part of planning is to assume someone will contact the press, that the press will be interested, and the focus of the press may not be what a smart business person you are. Imagine how the story will be told and in the most unflattering way. Try writing some headlines like the ones above.

After this exercise, you should sense the potential for an unhappy outcome. You’ll also realize that even if the future welfare of the residents is up to the residents and their families, the right and smart thing to do is to show that you understand how difficult the closing and moving will be, then offer to help smooth the transition in any way feasible and reasonable. That could mean hiring a consultant to work with residents and families on finding new placements, counseling residents, offering to pay for transportation and moving expenses across town, and extending the date the school takes ownership if some residents haven’t yet found appropriate living situations.

“This is the responsibility of the property owners,” you might say. Technically correct, but they also appeared asleep at the switch and seemed to do nothing to prepare for the announcement and eventual move. Press reports indicated residents heard indirectly that the place was closing. Cue Snidely. So if you have leverage over a partner—and the school did in this case—use it. Coordinating with the property owner in advance could have helped avoid problems that were aired in the press. Everyone has a reputation in need of protecting.

Make a list

A second useful and perhaps necessary task is to make a list of all of the stakeholders. Once you consider all those that are impacted by the move and those that can be influential in achieving your desired outcome, you will likely have a list that is longer than the one you originally compiled. In the school’s case stakeholders include the board, students, teachers, parents, alumni; prospective families; the owners of the property to be purchased, and as important, the residents, their families, and staff. Then there are the press and elected officials, and neighbors who will be affected by increased traffic.

With a plan in place, you can get ahead of the negative story by making the announcement yourself, and better yet, in conjunction with the property owner. If that’s not possible, you’ve met with residents and neighbors to answer their questions and address their concerns, explained the support to be provided and steps to mitigate the impact on neighbors, and are ready if and when the press calls come. With a plan, you won’t likely face the “Oh god, what can we tell them” moment which leads to at least two undesirable results:  You delay returning a reporter’s call and are quoted as the “no one was immediately available for comment,” (which translates as, “We were taken by surprise and don’t know what the hell to do”); or you do return the call and sound defensively discombobulated, resorting to legalisms and referring reporters to the property owner who will be equally unprepared because you neglected to get agreement with them in advance about the best way to conduct the purchase and how to treat everyone right.

And don’t forget to brief everyone on your team about the plan, underlying principles (do what’s right even if it costs more than anticipated), and what will be done to assist people adversely affected.

No matter how smart and decent, we all operate in bubbles with blinders. That’s why it’s important, in matters large and small, to take time individually and as part of a group to examine assumptions and role play possible internal and external audience reactions to your decisions before you make them.

When you make mistakes, learn from them. After the initial rumpus in the press, a senior school official was overheard saying that certain people in the community were always ready to pounce and repeat the charge that the school is elitist and unfeeling. If this is the lens through which leadership continues to view itself, more self-inflicted damage is as inevitable as the arrival of the next semester.