What if you knew that the president of your company was covering up a crime; that a colleague was suspected of sexually molesting young women; that your spokesperson was taking illegal drugs? Would you turn them in? What if you personally witnessed the crime? If asked to participate in the cover-up, would you agree? Which hat would you wear: the corporate hat or the upstanding citizen hat?
Take the former president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, charged last week with “a conspiracy of silence” for covering up the sexual abuse committed by former football coach Jerry Sandusky. Or the BBC, which is currently being investigated for covering up the alleged sexual molestation of youngsters over a half century by one of their own hosts, the late Jimmy Savile. Or Lance Armstrong, spokesmen to many, who last month was stripped of his seven Tour de France medals and banned from racing after being accused of taking steroids and leading a doping ring among players.
As an employee of these organizations privy to these crimes, would you spill the beans to authorities? Would you wave a red flag, wearing the hat of Citizen or Responsible Employee, not of brand protector? Knowing your role is to protect reputations and avoid negative publicity, would you keep quiet? Which hat would you choose to wear?
Closer to home, what if you knew your agency was over-billing a client, that your boss was lying about a campaign’s success; that a charity your organization supports was pilfering donations? Would you speak up? Knowing it’d be “bad PR” for your organization (and possibly for your career) if such negative news leaked, we like to think we’d still do the right thing. And I think most of us would. But it is not so black and white, especially when it comes to communicators’ role as the guardian of reputation.
Fortunately, in recent high-profile cases of malfeasance and crime among public figures, PR has held steady. We haven’t done anything wrong, and we haven’t done anything heroic. It appears PR was kept out of it until pieces needed to picked up.
But what if you and your PR compatriots were closer to these crimes? As we lament our distance from the boardroom tables where key decisions are made, we need to be prepared for the time when PR is brought in very early to help make game-changing and sometimes uncomfortable decisions. It’s already happening at many organizations, and as PR’s stature grows, it is likely we’ll be asked to say or do things that may collide with personal responsibility and obligation.
How you define yourself and the company you work for will make a key difference in which hat you choose to wear.
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