The Whistleblower's Brand Paradox

Martha Payne's lousy school lunch, via her blog, Neverseconds.

Conventional communications advice is to "stay on message."
It is as if leaders have a script (wait, they do - it's called "talking points") and they're supposed to read from it. Like an actor in a play.

In real life things are not that simple. People don't believe uncritically anymore, if they ever did.

Today a leader's pronouncements are viewed as just another text to "deconstruct."

Resistance to and subversion of formal "messaging" takes place on a continuum from active to passive, for example:

* Investigative blogging
* Commentator blogging
* Tweeting or retweeting
* Posting on Facebook
* Recording a YouTube-type video of oneself voicing an opinion
* Taking a photograph
* Sharing a link directly from the Internet
* Forwarding an email containing a link

Not everybody in America is wealthy. But it doesn't take money to follow your conscience. Only a thinking mind, the ability to communicate, and access to a means of distributing one's sentiments.

Because Americans respect honest people, we connect with them, we tend to appreciate the fact that they speak out. Even when we disagree.

Therefore, promoting honest speech enhances the brand. Yet organizations continue not only to script leadership talk, but to punish the very whistleblowers whose honesty can build the organization's reputation if allegations are addressed.

Examples of such punishment are everywhere, including the front page of today's New York Times (June 18, 2012), an expose on the Albert M. "Bo" Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton.

The worst thing about this halfway house isn't the poor conditions there.

It is the allegation that workers knew about those poor conditions and reported them over and over again, only to be rebuffed - pressured to change their reports.
"Bronislaw Szulc, a former senior state official in charge of investigating conditions at halfway houses, said he had filed reams of reports....(he) said top officials in Trenton had often ignored his reports, rarely held the halfway houses’ operators responsible and demanded that he soften his critical findings."
Sometimes whistleblowers were even dismissed:
"Community Education soon fired several senior staff members at Bo Robinson, including Mr. Brumbaugh, the deputy security director and former correction officer, who had earned a reputation as a whistle-blower because he had highlighted problems there."
I read a similar article in The Miami Herald just last week, "DJJ Watchdog Ousted After Criticizing Boss' Friend":

"Last week, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters informed Gov. Rick Scott that she intends to fire her agency’s top watchdog. Inspector General Mary Roe Eubanks had held the job since 2004, and was a nearly 25-year state employee, with 10 years in state agency investigations. Eubanks was placed on administrative leave, with pay, while the termination was being approved."

In the federal government as well, there is no shortage of employees speaking out about problems in the workplace, ranging from minor to major (GovLoopFederal SoupCleanup ATF). It defies logic that people would place their livelihoods in jeopardy simply to report wrongdoing, especially when they haven't done anything wrong. They could look the other way and nobody would judge them badly.

But it's just the opposite. Over and over again, one runs into examples of people who put their careers and reputations on the line, only to do the right thing.

Sadly, when they do, it is often not the organization that gets questioned, but the whistleblower. In fact, if persecuted, the whistleblower rapidly develops a personal brand - spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

...Hold on a minute. If it's true that whistleblowers are immediately branded as "trouble," "muckrackers," "crazy," and so on, how can they be good for the organization's brand?

The answer has to do with contradictory survival instincts inside and outside the group.

  • Inside: A critically thinking individual is disruptive because they resist the flow of "groupthink." Unless the organization is unusually self-reflective or under intense pressure to reform, it will favor those who "won't get in the way." Because most groups are dysfunctional. And indeed, as the famous Milgram study showed, they can find plenty of people who will go along with "whatever" when authority says "just do it" - even when it means they have to inflict incredible pain.
  • Outside: Organizational stakeholders rely on the group or organization to be highly functional. They expect excellence and are inconvenienced by dysfunction. No kindergarten teacher can afford to make up for a parent's neglect; a community can't channel its faith through people who abuse the parishioners; citizens can't sit up at night worrying that police are in cahoots with organized criminals; we can't afford doctors who see elderly patients for five seconds then charge Medicare $250 for a full-fledged visit; and so on.

From a communications standpoint, the intractable problem is that what looks like "trouble" from inside the group - a whistleblower - is completely the opposite from an outside perspective.

Indeed, when whistleblowers step forward to tell the public what is going on - such as the brave girl in Scotland who photographed her lousy school lunch in an effort to get healthier food - the public applauds.

And they wait to see what the organization will do.
From a communication perspective the answer to this riddle is pretty simple. Organizations ought to build in robust reporting mechanisms for fraud, waste and abuse. Those mechanisms should be easy to access and easy to use. And they should provide for no reprisal (just the opposite, some kind of reward) for the whistleblower (assuming that person is not just engaging in malicious slander).
If wrongdoing is discovered internally first, the organization has an opportunity to investigate and fix it, then report transparently about these activities. It's a chance to prove that whatever trust it has, is warranted.

If wrongdoing leaks externally, the organization can claim the problem and again, investigate it, fix it, and report on it quickly, without undue delay. In a way that is just for all concerned.
A balanced reputation management like this - really, a form of brand management - allows the organization to put equivalent of money in the reputational bank. Capital that can be drawn on later, in the event of a crisis. Capital that can prevent good employees from leaving, and that can encourage them to turn in "bad apples" who sour a basically good organization to all.

It is unfortunate that this prescription - which I know I have seen in various forms before - has until now largely gone unheeded.

How many times will we have to see a "scandal" break in the news, when the simplest and most basic of reputation management programs would have prevented it in the first place. And would have kept incredibly valuable people engaged with, and passionate about, the organizations where they spend much of their waking time.

Think about it - have a good day everyone - and good luck!