Every so often, we are contacted by people or organizations that believe they have been unfairly treated by colleagues, government regulators, the media or bloggers. They want to know what can be done to set the record straight and protect their good name.
The answer does not always satisfy them. We usually counsel them to move forward and forget about the past. Learn from the negatives and have them inform substantive changes -- while at the same time working to drown them out with positive actions and information.
Two cases in the news today point to the spectrum of possible approaches to responding to unpleasant accusations.
In Philadelphia, City Councilor Chuck Turner is in the midst of an aggressive and highly visible campaign to get his story out. He was recently charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe from a Roxbury nightclub owner who was working in cooperation with the FBI and then lying to federal investigators about it. Reporter John C. Drake wrote this account for The Boston Globe.
Turner and liberal activists who support him are creating a campaign-like apparatus, with a phone bank set for this weekend to encourage supporters to attend a rally - it will be his third - on Tuesday and to show up for his expected court appearance Wednesday. The councilor and his backers are issuing almost daily "Stand with Chuck" press releases, updating a special website, and considering raising money to help defray his legal bills.
As noted by Drake, Turner's strategy is a classic one in the public relations field. Get the positive message out and work hard to define the story on your terms.
From a public relations counselor's standpoint, it is exciting to see someone take this approach because it is relatively rare. Attorneys typically blanch at the idea of a client going public with their argument, so this high-risk/high-reward approach usually ends up being dismissed.
By coincidence, Maria Perotin at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram covered the story of a pair of doctors who are also taking action to defend their reputation. In contrast to Councilor Turner, who is out there getting his positive message out, Drs. George Cravens and Greg Ward are following the advice of their attorney, Jonathan Nelson, and are suing. As a result, they have made the terrible PR blunder of repeating and amplifying the original allegations, which has compounded the reputational damage.
The lawsuit accuses Dr. Roland Chalifoux of libeling them in his blog, Texas Shammed License. We won't get into all the specifics because Perotin does a good job of laying out the facts (and we don't want to get sued!) but suffice it say that Drs. Cravens and Ward argue that Dr. Chalifoux malicously lied in his blog about their relationships, complaints by patients and a past DUI.
It is just too bad they went to lawyer Nelson and not a PR counselor. First of all, this blog has not been updated since August 2005. It is dormant. Sure, it has unpleasant things in it, but it is almost a certainty that nobody would have known about them. All the lawsuit has done is dredge the allegations up and called attention to them. Based on Perotin's brief investigation, it would seem that this lawsuit is doomed. I hope the attorney explained how extremely difficult it is to prove libel. You have to prove that the writer KNEW what he was writing was not accurate. The courts give a great deal of latitude to first amendment protections. It can also be very tough to prove malice -- the intent to harm. Unless there is a paper trail, you almost need to be inside the writer's head.
Good luck with that.
In the meantime, Perotin's report shined the light on the fact that Dr. Ward WAS reprimanded and fined for a patient care complaint and he WAS arrested and charged with DUI. This is information that I suspect Dr. Ward would prefer not have the community know about -- but it was HIS lawsuit -- not the blog -- that caused this information to appear in today's newspaper.
I can't think of two better examples to illustrate the range of possible approaches to defending one's reputation. Both are aggressive and invite further scrutiny, but one is focused on communicating a positive message and the other is focused on attacking the message that has already been communicated. One is forward-looking and positive. The other is backward-looking and negative.