Responding to a Smear Campaign By Maureen Metcalf
In an era where people can make assertions about an organization or individual on social media, the topic of brand and reputation has become critical for organizational leaders. While these assertions may be untrue, damage to reputation is real. As the political rhetoric escalates, many companies are concerned. An example of this escalation is when the president of the United States tweeted about Nordstrom’s choice of clothing lines and specifically objected to the choice to terminate the Ivanka Trump line because of sales performance. Companies are now bracing for this type of attack with the same rigor with which they prepare for other business risks.
This blog is part of a series of blogs as companions to the interview with Barbara Marx Hubbard and Dr. Marc Gafni on VoiceAmerica “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations” on March 21, 2017 focusing on navigating a smear campaign they experienced, respectively, as the board co-chair and the founder of the Center of Integral Wisdom. What emerged was a much more hopeful conversation. They are modeling the behaviors they teach as they confront this challenge, and are working to leverage what would for others be a crippling crisis and share the culture of collaboration and unique contribution to a conscious world. They are talking about an evolution of our culture!
It isn’t always possible to anticipate the range of risks that face an organization, yet prudent business leaders evaluate likely scenarios and create policies and procedures aligned with the probability of the scenario and the risk it poses to the organization. When looking at the risk of a smear campaign, the following are three basic elements that organizations must attend to and an example of how the Center for Integral Wisdom (CIW) responded:
1. Plan your legal response. It is important to have legal counsel who have expertise in this area. They to advise you on your rights, as well as actions you must avoid.
CIW retained legal counsel and discussed the range of responses from how they approached those who started the campaign to considering the liability of directors and officers. It was critical to evaluate if employees or board members were engaged in any actual wrong-doing so that financial and legal liability could be assessed.
2. Public relations response. Companies specialize in helping organizations respond to crisiswhen information has been hacked and whose products have been tainted. Now, many of these companies have expanded to advise on possible and actual smear campaigns.
CIW worked very actively to craft a deliberate message that started with 50 messages of support for the CEO (Marc) and for the organization. Over time, the board co-chair (Barbara Marx Hubbard) posted a thorough accounting of the situation as seen from her role on the board. CIW also acted by removing the names of board members from the website to protect them from attacks because there were coordinated public attacks on a broad range of stakeholders from board members to the publisher of Marc’s books.
During this time, Marc and other board members began writing publicly about the smear campaign to help raise awareness of this risk across the community. They wanted to use their experience to educate others. As a think tank, they looked for opportunities to turn this attack into an educational opportunity for the broader community. Marc wrote about being wrongly accused. Numerous articles, such as those written by Lisa Engles, ”How Fake News is Used to Undermine a Leader” and Clint Fuhs, “Anatomy of A Smear: Internet Trial of Marc Gafni”, are great examples.
3. Employee support and internal communications. Employees are often shocked and in some cases angry or betrayed when their organizations are attacked. It is important that they are given support in managing their personal emotional response (crisis intervention) and are given talking points to respond to family and friends in conversation. Your employees are your first line of defense and they need to feel cared for and come together to support one another and protect the organization so it can continue to meet its mission during difficult times.
CIW, at its core, is a spiritual organization as well as a think tank. Marc is a rabbi. While this barrage of public attacks was personal and ugly, Marc was surrounded by a group of people who believed in him as a person and as a leader. While some distanced themselves, others stepped forward. He took time for personal introspection and renewal. He talked to his board and his staff about his mistakes and about how he was leveraging this opportunity to make a stand for treating everyone with respect and decency. To be clear, Marc like all humans has faults, yet these accusations were false. They were also personal and should have been handled privately between Marc and those who felt wronged.
I had several personal take-aways from this experience. As I make these recommendations, it would be hypocritical of me to do so without saying I have fallen short in each area and have put myself at risk.
1. We all make mistakes (some certainly more public than others). The quality of the person is demonstrated by his or her response when mistakes are made public.
2. It is important to strive to live a life that is above reproach. The adage, “Would you be okay if this action showed up on the cover of the newspaper for your family to read?” is always something to consider.
3. Restore the balance. We all have misunderstandings and it is important to find a path forward to restore a semblance of civility as quickly as possible. Again, I realize this is completely aspirational and I have gone for extended periods of time with little to no communication with people who are very important to me while I worked on my own issues related to the relationship.
4. Extend grace and compassion to others that we would like to receive if we were in their shoes. I can say from my experiences, I have made mistakes I am embarrassed by and I grew from all of them. I moved forward largely because people who cared about me forgave me and supported me despite my fallibility. I can also say that people close to me have held me accountable for cleaning up my messes. Extending compassion and grace doesn’t imply there are no consequences—rather, it means working together to fix what was damaged.
As leaders, we find ourselves navigating an increasingly complex world. We do our best to balance competing commitments and satisfy as many people as possible; however, most of us fall short on occasion. It is what we learn from the process that enables us to grow and help others grow.
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About the Author
Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.
Maureen has published several papers and articles and speaks regularly on innovative leadership, resilience, and organizational transformation. She is the author of the award-winning Innovative Leadership Workbook series and the co-author of the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook, winner of an International Book Award for Best Business Reference Book. She is also a regular contributor to Forbes.com.
Please note: I will only approve comments on this post that are constructive in nature. I will not perpetuate negativity and smearing behavior. While we promote different perspectives, they must be framed in a manner that promotes solutions to challenges and not framed as personal attacks damaging people involved in the process.