When to Blow Your Own Whistle

Blowing the whistle on your organization's own misconduct is the right thing to do, but is it also right to tell your customers and stakeholders?Many organizations take a responsible course and blow their own whistle on a mistake or misconduct. But they aren't always sure whether to go public with their self-reported problems.

It is an understandable dilemma. Why rock the boat unnecessarily?

However, the downside of not publicly disclosing mistakes or misconduct can be a serious erosion of trust and long-term damage to a brand or reputation.

There is no clear-cut formula of what is right. Organizations that self-report are doing the right thing. The question is — does the right thing in their circumstances include advising their customers, stakeholders and employees? More often than not, answer is yes.

The risk is too great that the story will break, especially if the misconduct involves criminal acts or matters that will eventually be public — in which case the organization must to deal with the story in a reactive mode. The failure to disclose can be viewed suspiciously, perhaps even as an attempt to cover up unflattering facts.

Public relations professionals with experience in crisis communication can provide invaluable assistance in helping an organization weigh the pros and cons of proactive and reactive media responses. If a PR pro is doing his or her job, the number one objective will be actions that preserve – or enhance – the organization's reputation.

There is plenty of evidence indicating the public can forgive mistakes, but doesn't forget cover-ups. That is not an argument for absolute transparency in every crisis situation, but it is a good reminder that reputations can be damaged by not owning a problem. In fact, owning a problem and dealing with it forthrightly is sometimes rewarded with greater customer and stakeholder loyalty.

The best advice is to have an intentional conversation about the appropriate media strategy. That conversation should include realistic appraisals of whether and how the "news" could leak out. This dose of reality usually results in sober choices about what to do.