Here is what I would have told Acorn if it had asked me to handle the crisis involving two employees who were videotaped advising a fake pimp and prostitute how to defraud the government:
- Fire the people and immediately announce you have fired them because they are rogue employees.
- Demonstrate that the company has ethics and malfeasance policies that it enforces and communicates to employees on a regular basis.
- State that the organization is doing a full-scale investigation that will look into how policies can be improved to prevent a reoccurrence.
- Remind everyone with easy-to-understand facts how much Acorn helps people.
- Announce results of the investigation, which will likely reveal that these are isolated instances of rogue employees, and make sure you include at least three concrete steps the organization is taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
- Consider rolling the head of an executive who takes the blame for poor oversight.
What I just described is the standard crisis communications strategy when a corporation steps into the deep stuff. I have used these communications principles to help maybe 25 organizations to successfully overcome crises caused by malfeasance, stupidity, acts of nature, mistakes and bad luck. My shorthand for this strategy is: fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again.
Now it occurred to me that perhaps Acorn tried this strategy, but the news media did not let it succeed for ideological reasons. And while it’s true that the conservative media has been after Acorn’s blood for some time now, my analysis of the news releases on the Acorn website suggests that Acorn efforts to “fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again” have been too little, too late.
Of course, it doesn’t help the situation much when in responding to the announcement that the IRS was severing ties with the group, Acorn’s chief executive lets herself be quoted saying, “We had already made that decision to not deliver these services.” Few things are more detrimental to an organization with a social or political mission than for it to characterize that mission as just another business product or service.