A company embroiled in a government investigation faces many challenges. Like with most crises, a company may suffer reputational harm, customer backlash and a potential impact on its license to operate. But, when government or regulatory agencies conduct an investigation, corporate executives are often more restrained in what they can say. With many investigations, it’s often the government that speaks first and speaks loudest.
However, this doesn’t eliminate the need for a robust communications plan that can be activated at the appropriate time. At such moments, a company needs to be prepared to engage with its employees, customers, shareholders and vendors—at the least, to convey that it’s taking the situation seriously and cooperating with the authorities.
In dealing with investigations, a company should be prepared to answer three main questions:
- What happened that led to the investigation?
- What did the company do to try to prevent the alleged wrongdoing?
- What’s the company doing now to address the situation and ensure it doesn’t happen again?
As with most crises, the answers to the first two questions are already set in stone when the communications team—and often the lawyers—are first brought in. It may take time to figure out what exactly happened or what compliance measures the company previously had in place, but the facts aren’t going to change. Whatever happened, happened.
The only question where a company can still improve the answer is: “what now?” What’s the company’s leadership doing in response? With this question comes the opportunity for corporate executives to show that they are trying to correct the situation and demonstrate that their company is a responsible corporate citizen.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '21 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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So, what can a company do? Often, it’s the type of mitigating factors that a government investigator may very well consider when determining the size of a penalty. This includes such things as: Did the company launch its own independent investigation into the allegations to get to the bottom of the issue? Did it hire an outside firm to conduct the inquiry? Did it cooperate fully with government investigators? Did the company upgrade its compliance programs or put in place new policies and procedures? Did the company remove the individuals who engaged in the alleged wrongdoing? Has the company enhanced its training programs for employees?
The underlying issue at the core of an investigation is going to dictate the best measures to undertake. But, steps like these go a long way, not only to potentially assuage a government prosecutor, but to rebuild the confidence of customers, investors and employees as the investigation unfolds. And, they create the basis for a meaningful communications strategy directed to those stakeholders.
After all, consider that employees will be concerned as to how the investigation may impact their own careers and will be watching how leadership responds. It will be important to keep staff engaged with their day-to-day responsibilities and focused on the company mission so that quality and productivity doesn’t suffer.
In addition, a company will need internal communications to emphasize that management is addressing underlying issues. Similarly, if the company is public, investors and analysts will want to understand the scope of a potential settlement and other actions that may stem from the government’s findings. In these cases, it may be wise for a company to conduct scenario planning to account for a variety of possible outcomes.
While a settlement may resolve the matter with the government—and therefore slowly draw the media attention to a close—management should recognize that the government may decide to generate much fanfare in connection with its announcement. And, the government’s voice will be critical and more influential than anything the company says. Even if management wants to litigate its case in public, chances are that the settlement will not permit the company to dispute the facts—and it’s unlikely that the media will give the company’s arguments much weight.
Therefore, companies need to shape a concise message that places the alleged wrongdoing into context, highlights the finality that the settlement brings, and alludes to the positive steps the company has taken in response.
Government investigations are challenging moments to navigate for any company and it’s natural for some in management to want to wage a public fight against the government. But, unless the legal strategy involves litigating the matter in court, that approach will only serve to elevate the issue, draw more attention to underlying allegations and distract from any positive measures the company has undertaken.
In the end, with a clear communications plan and realistic, achievable goals, even the highest-profile investigations can be weathered, and companies can emerge even stronger. Seizing these moments to show leadership, rethink operations, and reinforce trust with key stakeholders is something worth doing, and with the right strategy, it can yield valuable results.
Myron Marlin is a former practicing attorney who served as Chief Spokesman and Director of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as Communications Director at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He currently serves as Senior Managing Director in FTI Consulting’s Strategic Communications segment and as Americas Head of Crisis & Litigation.