Just Deal With It!

by Rick on November 10, 2011

When are people going to wake up, smell the coffee and deal with problems in a direct manner? The mess at Penn State is just the latest example of how not dealing with something makes it worse.

There is just no excuse for increasing your risk by trying to ignore a problem, minimize it or, stupidly, hide it. Most problems do not just go away, they just fester and get worse. The true scope of the problem will come out. Hiding a problem is just not possible and makes you look guilty of something that may look worse than it is.

Just deal with it!

We all know that none of us is perfect, so we can accept when mistakes are made. Admit it. Apologize. Fix it. That’s the only way to minimize the damage and move ahead.

From a crisis communications point of view, the problems you don’t want to read about are the ones you should probably just disclose. As long as you are fixing it, put the story out. That is your best chance of not reading much about it. You might lose the battle, but it will help you win the war.

When you’re talking about it, be realistic about the size of the problem – and if you don’t know, just say that. How much better off would BP be if it hadn’t tried to minimize how much oil was leaking in the Gulf of Mexico? In the early stages they really had no idea what was happening at that depth. Just tell the truth. Sometimes “We don’t know” is the only right answer. Just make sure you say you’re working hard to get that answer and make sure you share it when you do know.

A problem, particularly in this day and age, is not going to stay hidden. What the heck were the people at Penn State thinking? This is a sad story that could have been avoided if someone had stood up and done the right thing when the problem came to light. It sounds like a call to the police to share knowledge of a crime would have minimized the damage in so many ways. It isn’t a crime or a crisis to report witnessing a crime. What were people thinking?

Just deal with it!

Seriously, I don’t get it. I’ll admit that my formal education never included an ethics class and I definitely don’t have a law degree. What I did get was some basic homeschooling on this subject from Mom and Dad. They consistently taught me the difference between right and wrong, the benefits of honesty over dishonesty and reality versus fantasy.

My dad also believed, strongly, that a job worth doing is worth doing right and right now. He always lived that way and taught that lesson through repeated example. That lesson has never failed me. Ignoring it has always proved costly.

Common sense certainly needs to become more common. This isn’t rocket science. History has many examples of small problems getting huge because they were ignored. Is there really anyone who doesn’t have a dozen examples of how an attempt to cover something up or ignore it just makes it worse? And, how can anyone in this day and age think they can hide a problem forever?

It isn’t that hard. Just deal with it!

What the heck am I missing? Why does transparency seem to be so hard for some people to grasp?

  • It is an issue of common sense – but you know most people go to school and learn to become good employees instead of how to be better, fuller people within the context of their own lives. And I see the issue – how do you decide who is right, or what belief system. But surely there are things we can all agree are morally upright, and at least teach that subset?

    I was lucky, I got a healthy dose of “this is right, and this is wrong” from Mom and Dad. They also taught me that a job is just a job – don’t suffer around, settle or sell your soul for an employer, there’s another job down the street. They taught me to look at a job within the context of a career, and plan for a shift into entrepreneurism. Which is exactly what happened.

    But you know – we’re lucky we got that particular brand of good home training and we’re lucky. The worst thing my parents ever taught me was to say they weren’t home when they were. We’re lucky when the worst lesson we get from our parents is societal lying. Most people don’t formally get the kinds of thought out, well planned ethics lessons we did. Not that other people’s parents suck, they just had different priorities. Survive. Don’t get pregnant. Be a doctor at any cost.

    Maybe you can distill your wisdom into a book on how to deal with things that have gone un-said for too long. It’s sorely needed.

    • Tinu,

      You’re right, those of us who had the benefit of a solid upbringing are lucky. Having the right perspective helps in every area of our lives, including work.

      I have no idea how someone who witnessed a criminal act, particularly a rape, could just report it and let it go. Frankly, that is just morally bankrupt as far as I’m concerned. That one is about as cut and dried as it can ever get. I hope this is much more an exception than a rule.

      Most of the time it isn’t a criminal act they’re ignoring or, worse, hiding. Too often it is just a simple mistake that could have been handled easily if it was done right away and the proper way. I suppose that could be bad judgment based on how we were raised or it could just be ambition or greed. And I suppose if you get away with sometimes you figure why not this time – until it finally bites you in the butt.

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for adding to the conversation. As for a book… Maybe one of these days but for now I’m having trouble keeping my act together keepting the blog moving. But it is getting easier with practice and the encouragement of people taking the time to share their thoughts.

      Thanks!

      • I totally agree with you on that one, being someone who has gone through trauma that I’m not sure if people who were trusted with my care as a child may have ignored (not my parents). I pray this is an exception too.

        But when I think of things that have happened to me, I think it goes like this. 1- they see something suspicious. It seems untoward but they aren’t sure. Something distracts them and they forget about it. 2- They see something SO bad, they know the first instinct was right. But they don’t want to be the person who looked the other way, and don’t want to be involved in the conflict. So they try to make it so someone else will tell.

        That or they are EVIL and never would have told, so my outrage is moot. I don’t think it was bad judgement or any of those things… I think that people saw a lot of little things and when they finally added them up in the 2nd stage, the thing was too big, or they felt like it just couldn’t be true.

        • Sorry you had to go through something like that. Maybe something good will come out of such a high profile case as Penn State and people will be less reluctant to step up and do the right thing.

          The people who abuse children are, in my mind, sick and evil. You’re probably right about the people who stay silent but it still does not sit well with me. We can all be better guardians.

          • Agreed. We can all be better.

  • Anonymous

    So true, Rick. And so oft overlooked. Sadly. Still shaking my head over this one. Great post :))

    • Overlooked or ignored. Either way, it generally plays out poorly when it is.

      Thanks for sharing it.

  • Jim

    Everything you say makes a TON of sense … but I would expect nothing less.

    What might be interesting is to explore how many cover-ups are actually an effort to keep something from an immediate supervisor — and not to hide it from shareholders, the public or regulators. Ironically, most executives I’ve dealt with would rather hear the truth early than have it leak out. So, if you follow this logic to its conclusion, the way an organization can best protect itself is by promoting a culture of honest communication because that would likely reduce the amount of “bad news hiding” that takes place.

    Not sure that would be particularly relevant to the Penn State case, since it appears everyone was aware of a problem, but this might apply to most corporate crises.

    • Jim,

      That would be an interesting study. Right now I can think of some pretty big problems going on beyond Penn State. One appears to be a top down cover-up and the other is absolutely someone trying to keep something from an immediate supervisor.

      I’m going to have to think about the origins of other crisis situations I’ve dealt with. That said, I think a culture of honest communication can greatly “reduce the amount of ‘bad news hiding…’

  • Dave Faggard, CGSC Student

    Rick, well argued. I’ve been in an environment that was so concerned with the reputation of the organization and the damage that could be done from releasing news of a negative incident that there was actually a split second that my leaders considered sitting on…. Fortunately, calmer heads and media savvy professionals prevailed and we released the bad news. An old mentor of mine who spent a few years in senior government media roles often shared that “the institution will live on; one release of bad news will not wreck the decades of previously good news.”

    http://www.isthison.wordpress.com

    • Dave, if someone doesn’t think their reputation can withstand a crisis then they should be working to build one that can. Your mentor was right, the release of bad news will not wreck a strong reputation. What will wreck it is not dealing with the problem or trying to hide it.

      I’m glad to hear you were able to overcome the resistance.

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