PR Hot Take: Where There is Smoke, There is Fire

Recently, an organization I follow announced made a significant announcement about the staff that would significantly impact their daily operations. I will not be naming the organization or giving any identifiable details in this post. While this announcement may have been in the works for months, the news distributed to the public seemed abrupt and came with very little forewarning that this transition would be happening. To add to the abrupt nature of the announcement, was that this change would occur before the allotted schedule that this organization routinely follows. All in all, the announcement caught me, an invested stakeholder, off guard.

Fast forward ten days later, and I happened to be on social media and read a story about alleged missing funds within the same organization. My PR intuition was initially aroused at the announcement; then, with the following news, I acknowledged I was watching a communications crisis develop in real-time. As a crisis communications professional, I had to know more, so I began digging. What is in the public discourse, social media, and press stories leaves more unanswered questions and severe gaps in communication with general stakeholders. For this organization, where trust is paramount, I am deeply concerned about the reputational damage being done in real time.

I share this PR hot take today because, number one, it interests me, and I am interested to see how these issues will resolve as a whole for the organization. I am also sharing this because it is an excellent case of how not to communicate with stakeholders. Below, you will find my perfect recipe for a full-blown crisis communications episode:

  1. Make a significant announcement with little to no warning to the general public that will profoundly impact your organization forever.
  2. Hold closed-door meetings where stakeholders who are usually involved have been shut out or have the perception that they’ve been shut out.
  3. Do not correct accusations of missing funds and or make any statements to clear the record on this matter.
  4. Do not communicate a plan for transition, stability, and transparency.

When an organization goes through a transition with public stakeholders, communication efforts should be ample and provide transparency. The lack of transparency is not good. I was talking to a friend about this organization and the situation, and they said to me the adage, “Where there is smoke, there’s fire.” My friend’s thoughts on the situation illustrated that with the lack of communication from the organization, there is a vacuum for information where stakeholders will be left to make their own conclusions, and that is not good. Reputational damage is being done in real time.

As a communications professional and an interested stakeholder, I find this painful to watch. The point that I am trying to make is that communication is powerful and, when done strategically, makes the difference in building trust and protecting an organization’s reputation. I understand that this organization may not be able to communicate specific details, but the lack of communication as a whole lends stakeholders to feel that the organization is intentionally vague out of wrongdoing or guilt. In my conversation with my friend, I asked what led them to believe that there was alleged wrong-doing in this situation, and they remarked to me, “They’re just not telling us enough, and the way in which things have been communicated doesn’t help matters, it all just feels like a sloppy mess.” I could not fault my friend’s assessment of the situation; the communication, what has gone out publicly, has been sloppy from a strategic point of view.

Communicating ad-hoc to the general public when your organization is heavily public-facing and requires trust at the highest levels from your stakeholders is a bad situation. I hope that this organization realizes what is happening before the reputational damage gets any worse, and if they don’t know how to communicate what is happening within their organization, they seek help from a communications professional immediately.

Examples such as this one can be found easily in business or anywhere where there is public interest within a community. I also want to make clear that I am not criticizing this organization; I am simply using it as a teachable moment. Reader, if you take only one thing away from this post today, take this: communication is key! Don’t leave your stakeholders to come to their own conclusions about the inner workings of your organization; it never ends well. Trust me on this one!