A year ago this month, The New York Times published its first article in a series exposing movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual misconduct. That article breathed new life into the #MeToo movement and ignited a cultural reckoning that continues to this day.
The article was followed by a seemingly endless stream of corporate workplace crises. Companies in a range of industries were forced to investigate their own employees accused of sexual misconduct and to respond publicly.
Grace Speights, a partner at Morgan Lewis, has played a central role in many of those cases. As the head of a workplace culture consulting team, Grace leads internal investigations into employee misconduct. Like many lawyers today, she also spends a lot time developing plans to minimize workplace crises, all with an eye on the all-important court of public opinion.
“We are definitely just as important to our clients outside the courtroom as we are inside,” she notes.
We recently spoke with Grace about the new dynamics of corporate crises and the mistakes companies can avoid.
How have shifts in the media landscape over the last 10 years changed the practice of crisis management?
There is more pressure on my clients to respond quicker than ever. A long time ago, when newspaper reporters would reach out on employment-related issues, generally speaking, most companies would say, "No comment." But today, because of the speed of social media and how quickly word gets out there, and how quickly the story can get out of control, there is pressure to move quickly.
When you’re conducting an internal investigation, how does the intense media scrutiny impact your work?
It doesn’t change what we do because we always want to make sure in an investigation that we are being neutral and that we are getting to the bottom of the facts. And sometimes that may be a little slower than our clients want. But I think it’s best to get it right than to get it done quickly.
Having said that, we do know that in these days, a lot that’s supposed to be confidential doesn’t remain confidential. So, while we don’t change how we conduct an investigation, we’re more careful as to how we write and what we say. Because we do know that every word in a report will be taken apart. Because of social media, there are so many more people looking at what you’re doing, reading what you’re writing, listening to what you’re saying, and then repeating it.
Is it ever a good idea for a company investigating allegations of employee misconduct to ignore the media?
While in the past, many did, I don’t think it’s safe anymore. To the extent you don’t tell your story, someone else is going to quickly tell it for you. And it may be that the story is, "Look, we just learned about this. We take this seriously, and we’re going to conduct an investigation." That’s giving the media something. Responding with no comment or not responding to them—I think that’s dangerous.
In sensitive employee matters, are there any special consideration when deciding whether to engage the media?
You don’t speak if you don’t know the facts. Because the last thing you want to do is to say something like, "We dispute these allegations, and we’re going to fight them vigorously." If you don’t know the facts surrounding the allegations, how can you say you’re going to dispute them? So I think it’s always important to not say anything that you know is untrue or that you don’t know as a fact.
Also, whether it’s an issue of discrimination, sexual harassment, etc., you have to be mindful of employee privacy concerns. That doesn’t apply to just the person against whom the allegation is made, but it also applies to the person who’s making the allegation. Sometimes we’re quick to think about the person against whom an allegation is made, but I will tell you that there are many people who bring allegations of race discrimination and sexual harassment, and they don’t want their names and information floating out there in the media.
What are some ground rules you have for working with crisis communications advisers?
Well, number one, I don’t want those types of advisers getting out ahead of the lawyers or ahead of me. Sometimes they want to say things in a way that’s going to be problematic for me as a lawyer and what I may have to put in documents that have to be filed with the court.
So, I don’t think either of us can get ahead of each other. Putting aside privilege issues—because those are also a concern—what we are saying to the press, to our constituents, and to the court must be consistent. If you’re not being consistent, meaning you’re not coordinating, that can be very detrimental to your client’s position.
What’s preventing companies from handling crisis more effectively?
I think too often, companies are not prepared. We always counsel that companies should have a crisis management plan. And a lot of times, I’ll have clients say to me, "Well, how can I come up with a plan if I don't know what the crisis is?" It doesn’t matter what the crisis is.
If we have a crisis, there should be a plan regarding how you handle it. Who are the people we need to reach out to? Who are the experts we’re going to use? Do we have employment counsel lined up? Do we have an outside PR firm lined up? What’s our message to our employees? And you can prepare for that without a crisis. Given the industry that you’re in, you can also think about what the potential crises may be. If I’m with an oil company, there are oil spills and potential environmental issues. So having a generic plan that you can then plug in the crisis is important. And there are many companies that don’t have those plans in place.
Andrew Longstreth helps professional services firms create engaging content. A former journalist, Andrew translates complex ideas into compelling and clear language. His extensive writing experience, which spans a wide range of topics, includes deeply researched thought leadership, op-eds and blog posts.
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