A whistleblowing outbreak – reputation management in a COVID-secure world

May 13, 2020 • 8 minute read

From US Navy Captain, Brett Crozier to Amazon employee activists, every day brings more media coverage of whistle-blowers making allegations about the pandemic-related conduct of their organisations.

As countries endeavour to get back to work, a surge of further disclosures is inevitable and organisations need to be well-prepared – inaction now could have detrimental effects on reputation that last long after the crisis has been contained and the economic recovery has begun.

Acting in the public interest

Since the crisis began doctors, scientists, and other frontline workers have sought to blow the whistle in relation to health and safety breaches, inadequate health system capacity and public procurement problems. They have taken personal risks to expose practices that they believe to be wrong, yet some employers and public authorities have responded to many by firing them.

As the crisis continues to evolve, further disclosures will continue to put organisations under the spotlight, not just for failing to make workplaces Covid-secure, but for breaches of employment law; violations of personal privacy rights; unethical global supply chains; market abuses and unfair competition practices.

Leadership must remember that whistle-blowers – for the most part – will be acting in the best ethical interests of the organisation, its wider stakeholders or the general public, and that the risks they take should be welcomed. Attempting to suppress disclosures, by wilfully ignoring claims, non-disclosure agreements or sacking, will often only galvanise those who seek to tell the truth, significantly increasing the chances of the allegation being splashed across the media.

Fake News?

Of course, not all disclosures are genuine.

As the crisis continues to wreak unprecedented economic turmoil, vast numbers of redundancies will create resentment from former employees, some of whom will look to damaging allegations to exact revenge.

Social media is an area of significant risk – with an anonymous Twitter account able to plant claims in the public domain with speed and impunity. Such cases are most damaging with buy-in from others – typically journalists – who can promote and fuel a campaign.

The bottom line is that most organisations do not get the benefit of the doubt in these situations. A vulnerable individual, being seen to stand-up for truth, will immediately win public sympathy even where they are not a wronged party nor acting in the public interest.

From a communications point of view, this underlines the importance of establishing the validity of a disclosure before an effective response can be developed. Understanding whether it is genuine or false is the most critical and challenging aspect of any whistleblowing situation.

Media response

When dealing with media inquiries, it is important to move swiftly and involve communications professionals as early as possible. Transparency and honesty are integral to an effective response and delay will call these into question.

Typically, an initial holding statement will be released stating that an organisation is looking into the concerns raised while underlining that action will be taken to address the situation if shortcomings are discovered. This buys time to investigate.

Pending the outcome of an initial investigation, it may be appropriate to issue an apology if conduct or systems have been found wanting. Although painful in the short term, it is always better to address a bad news story quickly rather than risk the appearance of a cover-up. Ensure close cooperation between communication and legal counsel when crafting key messages, statements and talking points. Monitor all media coverage to ensure it is fair and accurate, and seek corrections where it is not.

An inquiry may also be considered to prevent future occurrences and mitigate longer-term reputational damage – allegations can re-emerge at any time and by being transparent and proactive in communicating any measures taken to remedy issues, future reporting is likely to be more balanced.

Pre-emptive steps

It is far easier to prevent a disclosure going public than to fix the reputational damage that it can cause once it is in the hands of the media.

By having a policy that encourages and protects whistleblowers, taking proactive action to address staff concerns, and providing well-advertised and anonymous channels to raise issues to those in charge (either in-house or via a third party) the media will fast become a last resort for genuine disclosures.

It is also important to maintain an awareness of coronavirus-related disclosures that arise elsewhere. The media will be quick to condemn whole sectors for failures and it may be necessary to address issues that are not necessarily your own.

A catalyst for improvement

Successful handling of whistle-blowers’ coronavirus disclosures should be seen as an opportunity to build and maintain trust with employees at a difficult time for all.

Rather than a high-risk reactive approach, the process can be an opportunity to shape the future of an organisation by inviting employee collaboration to build a strong and shared culture of transparency and enhancement.

Ultimately, it is such a culture that will provide the best protection against harmful media coverage and safeguard against the sort of reputational damage from which it can be hard to recover.

Ryan McSharry is Head of Professional Services at Infinite Global.