Do corporate execs and legal counsel truly understand the role news media plays in establishing the narrative about fault and consequences when a scandal arises? Michael Toebe offers guidance on responding well.
How significant a crisis may become with all stakeholders may have more to do with how it’s interpreted by the media and presented by it than what actually has transpired, according to two different studies.
Those findings are vital to gain an understanding of in regard to ethics, governance, compliance and, when necessary, responsive communications.
“What we find are the traditionally objective characteristics of a scandal, including the evidence of wrongdoing, in isolation, are less influential than the meanings offered by the media. This finding highlights the powerful role that meaning construction plays in determining the allocation of blame and consequences in a scandal.”
— “The Social Construction of Scandal,” Timothy R. Hannigan, Jonathan Bundy, Scott Graffin, James B. Wade, Joseph F. Porac
Translating that statement, objective characteristics of a scandal prove to be less convincing to stakeholders than what the media decides to communicate as the story.
The media decides the angle, and how it frames the story proves highly persuasive in the blame and consequences that likely will develop and endure.
This is not to say that the media doesn’t report facts, that it isn’t doing its job as watchdog; it is to say that the media can have agendas like any human, can have blind spots, can succumb to sensationalism and has the power to frame a story how it wishes, at times to align with personal beliefs or in a way that will attract more attention to a journalist’s or author’s work or to a news outlet. Not all journalists or news organizations conduct themselves in this manner. Most don’t.
Yet the profession and industry has changed – and is changing – and there are individuals and news organizations that are looking for more than news: They are looking for knockout punches.
Knowing of this very strong possibility, organizational leaders can best consider how to create improved and sufficient safeguards against adverse events that will be presented by the media as a scandal and become a crisis that can be damaging to different levels – tangible and intangible – to multiple stakeholders.
Some important questions to consider:
- What ethical challenges are currently present in the organization, either individually or collectively?
- Where are the risks most likely lying?
- What are the stress points for the organization?
- What governance and compliance weak points could exist and do exist that may be significantly increasing risk and vulnerability? Is this being examined on a regular basis in a thorough manner with receptiveness to finding the need for adjustments?
- Is the organization overcoming common confirmation bias and “sunk costs” decision-making?
There is good news coming from a different study that might be surprising considering the current state of societal culture: According to Fleur Fransen’s paper, “The Role of Media Organizations in Framing a ‘Corporate Scandal,’” “not all corporate socially debatable activities are turning out into a corporate scandal.”
Fransen continued, however, with what should constitute a warning:
“… media outlets are often the only source of information available to most of the public and, especially with the help of framing, they have a great influence on how people think about a particular subject. This means that the way media organizations present a certain issue and the frequency of paying attention to it, can play a role in constructing corporate scandals (Puglisi & Snyder, 2011).”
Knowing this information can be helpful in crisis communications, which is best conducted by remaining poised and bypassing anger and blame and not criticizing media, but instead projecting confidence and speaking with humility and emotional intelligence to a narrative more closely aligned to the “objective characteristics” of the adversity.
w. Joseph Campbell, a professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C., wrote in his piece, “What Happens When the Media Really Gets It Wrong,”
“… media myths are not harmless. They can, and do, have damaging consequences. Media myths also tend to grant the news media greater power and influence than they realistically exert, which distorts popular understanding about the roles and functions of journalism.”
Even when the media doesn’t get it wrong, how it frames news and opinion can lack accuracy – without much consequence for reporters or news outlets, but with strong consequences for organizational leaders and stakeholders.
The findings should illuminate what can happen. A scandal becomes a crisis. But what constitutes a scandal? The media often gets to define it, and when it does, a feeding frenzy ensues. That’s why this research should be yet another call to action.
Key Actions to Take in the Face of a Scandal
Get Together as a Team Weekly and Don’t Assume Problems Aren’t Developing
This might sound like overkill of frequency, yet this level of consistent, thorough check-in, which doesn’t have to be in person or lengthy in nature, will prove valuable.
If people’s attitudes are professional, the mission-valued, astute observations brought to the table, committed discussions conducted and clarity gained, high-level risk management is being conducted.
Conduct Regular Maintenance Checks
This is outside of the regular convening of the minds. Commit to precautionary check-ups in a manner that is serious, structured, focused, detailed and thorough. An analogy: how important is it to you that regular plane maintenance is done before you take a flight? Consider your career, job, organization and mission that plane.
Be Open-Minded to What You Don’t Know and Don’t Believe
Narrow, rigid thinking is low-level risk management. It’s also common. This can prove challenging to experienced, confident people, which is why they are susceptible to making errors. Overcoming it requires heightened self-awareness and being receptive to gaining understanding of our very natural biases that trap us, including:
Dunning-Kruger Effect: We believe we are smarter and wiser than we really are.
Confirmation Bias: An automatic tendency to only recognize specific information and evidence that verifies what we already believe.
Echo Chamber: Choosing or remaining in an environment in which we encounter only the beliefs or opinions similar to our own and being at peace about it.
Motivated Reasoning: Searching for and finding evidence to support and satisfy our emotions about a belief.
Diagnosis Bias: We attach strong labels based on our initial opinions and then struggle to ever reconsider those judgments, regardless of facts and evidence.
Bandwagon Effect: Following the crowd and not necessarily knowing why we’re doing it.
Hostile Attribution Bias: Interpreting others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign. Going a step further, those exhibiting this bias consider the behavior particularly hostile toward them personally.
Reactive Devaluation: A proposal is devalued if it appears to originate from someone considered an antagonist to them.
Ask Yourself “What Don’t I Know?” “How Do I Know I’m Right?” and “What Could I Missing?” Often. Think Long and Hard and Answer Honestly and Thoroughly.
Confidence is important. Overconfidence and arrogance are liabilities. Questioning ourselves is not self-doubt, but instead putting our beliefs through important and critical testing as an act of humility and precaution.
It takes acts of wisdom, patience and stronger examination to do it, yet the benefits far outweigh the cost to ego and of potentially elevated risk.
Prioritize Adjustments and Corrections and Implement Them Thoroughly, With Follow-Up Testing
Be proactive when it comes to adjustments and corrections. Underestimating the need for them can be a mistake that turns into costly error. Do regular follow up to determine if the adjustments and corrections have problem solved well or if they again need further development.
Encourage and Support Messengers, aka Whistleblowers (Reporters)
When people risk their psychological safety and professional and personal well-being by coming forward, recognize that sacrifice and value the offering they bring because it just might save you conflict, scandal and crisis and the multiple tangible and intangible costs.
NAVEX Global CCO Carrie Penman recently shared her professional recommendation on CCI in the piece, “It’s Time to Reconsider the Term ‘Whistleblower’” to replace the term whistleblower and its negative connotation with a less inflammatory one: reporter.
Reporters are watch guards for your best interests. See and value them that way.
Work on Your Reputation Daily so You Increase the Likelihood of Earning the Benefit of the Doubt
Many don’t think sufficiently about their reputation until they desperately need it to be strong. Every act, internal to the organization and external, is a reputation builder or forfeiture. Build that capital daily. See that task as trust, credibility, insurance and risk management. Learn that it increases the benefit of the doubt for you as well when your reputation is strong.
“Among people who trust a company a great deal, more than half (59 percent) say they would definitely give that company the benefit of the doubt in a crisis. Among people who are feel neutral toward a company, that percentage shrinks to just 10 percent.”
— Ipsos Corporate Reputation, The Link Between Trust, Risk and Benefit of the Doubt
Be Understanding of the Media and Their Jobs and Engage Them with Increased Access, Humility and Forthrightness
We might be idealists in regard to what we believe is fair in life when it comes to scrutiny, yet we benefit most by understanding and working with reality, no matter how much we might disagree.
Having empathy for the media and the challenges of their work and deciding to engage with them in scandal by being more accessible, humble, truthful and forthright will not only impress the media; you will be seen as more trustworthy and be listened to better in telling your side of the story, and that will come across more favorably in the press and on social media, as well as in the dangerous landscape of the court of public opinion.
Your stakeholders will have greater confidence in you for your navigational skills, and you will prevent or at least better mitigate a scandal.