They’re rogue agents – Edward Snowden of consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, Aaron Hernandez of the National Football League’s New England Patriots, and, most recently, Brandon Huber, the Golden Corral worker who posted the viral video on “dumpster ribs.” How organizations anticipate, prepare for and handle these types of destabilizing events, Edelman has found, offers the truest test of their character, values and integrity – those qualities that serve as a foundation for their reputation.
Most recently, there’s the example of Huber’s video that demonstrated his employer’s alleged habit of putting uncovered food next to the restaurant’s dumpsters outside. According to Huber, this video was the culmination of management ignoring ongoing employee concerns about the unsanitary food storage practices in place at the restaurant.
While Golden Corral’s initial response on YouTube focused on the fact that the food was allegedly never served to people and that Huber was trying to make money off of this video, it raises a key question that all organizations need to consider in light of this situation: does your organization have a culture or mechanism in place that allows for employees to voice discontent or concerns? In the absence of such a mechanism, rogue employee behavior and acting out will inevitably fill this void, leading to disastrous results for companies that, in this age of the viral video and citizen journalism, are more exposed than ever before.
Or consider the situation involving former Patriots tight end Hernandez, charged with first-degree murder (admittedly way beyond the pale of simple rogue behavior). While Hernandez, of course, is innocent until proven guilty, the Patriots, in cutting Hernandez, acted decisively believing that the reputational risk that Hernandez, a former All-Pro, represented was far greater than the potential loss of on-the-field performance or financial impact (including salary cap ramifications and $12.5 million in bonus money). In a statement, the Patriots maintained that releasing Hernandez was “simply the right thing to do.” Less than 24 hours later, Puma ended its two-year endorsement deal signed with Hernandez just in April.
In the case of Snowden, the former Booz consultant who leaked confidential information about U.S. surveillance programs, scrutiny of his former employer likely will continue for quite a while given that nearly half of its 25,000 employees hold top-secret security clearances to work on U.S. intelligence programs.
Unfortunately, unlike Patriots’ management that has proceeded very carefully publicly, Booz already has jeopardized its promise to restore any lost trust with its recent sponsorship of a 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival discussion on “Matter of Debate: Is Privacy Paramount or Should We Live in a Transparent Society?”—a seemingly tone deaf move that undermines the company’s credibility to follow through on its promise to investigate “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”
The challenge for Booz will be to convince their clients, regulators and the court of public opinion that this is a one-off, rogue situation, and not as a systemic issue within the organization — incredibly important from both a macro reputation and bottom line standpoint given that the U.S. government represents a staggering 99 percent of its revenue.
While these examples illustrate contrasting examples of how to manage the reputational fallout from high-profile employee misconduct, they offer several common takeaways that all companies should consider as part of their macro risk-management strategy:
Develop The Ability to Anticipate — the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer confirmed that during a crisis, companies are accountable for providing meaningful answers to the question, “What have you done to prevent this crisis?” Simply posing this question is a vital step in developing a preparedness capability.
Take Risk to Manage Risk — Companies won’t always have the benefit of possessing all of the information before making a decision on how to manage a specific risk. With the New England Patriots, for example, management decided to release Hernandez based on the available information that, coincidentally, did not include any legal determination of his guilt or innocence.
Demonstrate a Bias for Action — The Trust Barometer also confirms that companies with well-established marketplace trust are afforded a window of opportunity to tell their story before people cast their judgment on them. In times of dynamic crises, companies must leverage this trust, demonstrate a bias for action and act decisively to protect their corporate brand.
Quickly Identify and Quantify the Operating Realities — Organizations need to identify the levers and pulleys that shape the operating and environmental realties of event-driven risk around a significant decision. This can easily be done by activating a robust social business intelligence process that tracks and quantifies threats and opportunities.
Andy Liuzzi is a vice president and group manager of the Edelman Chicago Crisis and Issues Management team.