sexual harassment scandals, PR & corporate communications
Image source: U.S Army. Photo Credit: Timothy Hale

Hardly a day passes without news of sexual harassment allegations. More than 30 men have been fired or forced to resign after accusations of improper conduct. Sexual assault scandals of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey may take their place as some of the worst PR disasters of the year.

Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

A New Face for PR Crisis Management

The epidemic has given a new face to PR crisis management, says Andrew Blum, PR consultant, media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. Men were fired or forced out almost immediately after allegations surfaced, leaving PR advisors few options other than long-term reputation repair.

While the scandals mostly center on politicians and the entertainment industry, controversies may strike other business sectors, though theymay not receive as much publicity and notoriety. A Redbook survey of its readers this year revealed that 80 percent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work – just a slight change since 1976 when 90 percent of its readers reported unwanted attention at work.

Responding quickly and plainly is the first step to mitigating reputational damage to the accused person and the organization. A survey by PR agency Bospar with Propeller Insights reveals that most people want organizations to respond within 24 hours, says Curtis Sparrer, co-founder and principal at Bospar, in an O’Dwyer’s article. They also want to be promised an independent investigation and to be told the mistake won’t be repeated.

When accusations become public, legal advisors may offer different advice to management than PR counsel does. Decision-makers must weigh the differing approaches to determine the most appropriate response.

A third of people surveyed want to hear an apology – as long as it’s sincere and free of obfuscation.

Maintain trust. Avoid words and phrases that cause people to doubt your sincerity, Sparrer recommends. Some of those phrases are: “Fake news,” “I swear” and “media conspiracy.” An inability to remember creates the most doubt in people’s minds.

Revisit and Revive Company Sexual Harassment Policies

Legal and PR experts urge organizations to re-evaluate their employee policies on sexual harassment as well as how they communicate their policies to workers.

Many companies rely on the same old stale, perfunctory paperwork. Create communications that employees will want to read and videos they’ll want to view, urges Jacqueline Strayer, a faculty member at New York University and Columbia. Communications should reinforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment and resonate across cultures, communities and generations, Strayer writes in an article for the Institute for Public Relations.

Management involvement. It’s essential for management to discuss the issue with employees, Strayer says. To meet that goal, management needs more than standard talking points and FAQs. PR and the legal team must craft messages that are simple, direct and acknowledge the company position.

To be effective, policies require training, monitoring and enforcement, says David Kern, a partner at the law firm of Quarles & Brady LLP.

An audit of an organization’s vulnerability should involve HR professionals, legal counsel and PR professionals, says Kern. Teamwork between all three groups can help prevent or at least minimize reputational damage.

Perform a reality check to determine if employees understand the policy, Kern advises. And don’t answer that question with: “because they signed a form saying they’d read the policy.”

In addition, find if employees believe the company truly is committed to a harassment-free workplace and isn’t just paying lip service to the issue, experts advise. Third-party experts skilled at conducting employee interviews and leading focus groups can help.

Continually monitoring social media can provide insights to employees’ feelings. Besides uncovering inappropriate comments online, social media listening can reveal signs of underlying issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. “Often times, social media channels can be a source for employees to vent about things they might not raise in the workplace,” Strayer says.

Bottom Line: The proliferation of sexual harassment controversies creates greater challenges for corporate PR departments and PR agencies. Sexual harassment accusations may spread across different industries and only increase next year, since most American women say they’ve experiences harassment at work. While a swift and honest response can mitigate reputational damage, pursuing a harassment-free workplace through a strong corporate policy and effective employee communications is the best defense.

This article was first published on the blog.