Since the Weinstein scandal broke – a long-simmering open secret in Hollywood going back at least as far as Courtney Love’s infamous, televised 2005 warning, and probably a lot further – there’s been a spate of other abuses coming to light. Mark Halperin. James Toback. George HW Bush. Just yesterday, Kevin Spacey was added to the list for an alleged 1986 incident with actor Anthony Rapp. Today? Andy Dick, after a decades-long string of arrests for sexual assault. All of this on top of the Bill O’Reilly scandal earlier this year.
While women have been keenly aware of this (and have tried telling everyone over and over again), it’s rapidly becoming clear that this problem is massive and systemic, starting from the White House and moving on down. Power, in the most patently obvious yet still somehow surprising statement that has perhaps ever been made, breeds abuse; where the victim is a woman, doubly so. Which means that there is possibly lurking, at many companies out there, someone or someones who are themselves guilty of this sort of disgusting serial predation. Which also means that it’s very possible this is an issue every company will have to deal with. And if you’re in any position of leadership, the question as to how to deal with it may fall squarely… on you.
It’s not an easy question to answer, and while circumstances are going to differ from case to case, person to person, and company to company – the Weinstein Company, for example, is going to have a hard time bouncing back when it’s literally named after a prolific accused abuser – there are nonetheless constructive steps that almost any company can take. With that in mind, in the event serial predation is discovered or uncovered at the top of the ranks in your company, here is a handy guide to appropriately approach the situation as well as help maintain the company’s good name and protect the lives and jobs of its rank-and-file.
Failure could put the entire company at risk.
Remove the predator
First and foremost, this needs to happen, and it needs to happen almost immediately. It needs to be clear, clean, and punishing; no golden parachutes, no stock options, no farewell party. Key to any organization dealing with this kind of sexual abuse is making a very bold statement that this kind of conduct is not only at odds with the company’s values, but with living in society. That means a swift, bold, uncompromising response that matches public revulsion and mirrors it back to onlookers. In short, you need to say “we are as disgusted as you are, and we are doing exactly what you would do.”
It’s hard. I know. We’re talking about powerful people with lots of allies, but loyalty isn’t going to do anyone any favors; behavior so abhorrent and opposed to public norms of decency and respect requires strong, unequivocal condemnation with real consequences; even if no laws have been broken, it is vital for a company to be seen as strongly distancing itself from any wrongdoing so as to minimize potential fallout.
Transparency over self-preservation
As the scandal continues to unfold, it’s becoming clear that the Weinstein Company was, unfortunately, apparently aware of allegations well in advance of anything breaking, and apparently countenanced payouts to silence Weinstein’s victims. Questions are being asked as to who knew what and when, whether Disney was aware during its period of ownership over Miramax, and whether the board has any criminal liability. Internally, one must imagine that the Weinstein Company’s leadership is in a state of panicky, helpless dread; what else will come to light? Who else is going to fall as a result of this? What should they do?
If true that the company was indeed aware of Weinstein’s behavior and oversaw paying hush money to preserve its reputation, the only way forward isn’t denial, which nobody will believe anyway; it’s for heads to roll. That means transparency; a company caught up in this mess cannot go into siege mode. It not only makes you look guilty, it prevents you from addressing the scandal in a way that’s constructive and helps ensure survival; battening down the hatches and denying everything or hoping a sacrificial lamb will be enough simply does not work. Nor is it good enough. Especially these days, where the animus and emotion are, rightfully, so heightened, and where the questions will dog you unto digital eternity.
The best response, to avoid charges of collusion or conspiracy to conceal the truth, would be to find a neutral third party to investigate the situation and provide a full accounting of the behavior of all relevant parties. This is a move that works to restore public confidence that the company is honestly invested in something approaching justice, and isn’t solely out for their own necks.
Of course, for any of this to work, the commitment must be real. Which brings us to…
It’s 2017, and the last ten months of the Trump administration has everyone’s truth meters pretty finely tuned. Kevin Spacey’s response to the allegations he’s facing, which attempted to deflect responsibility by coming out of the closet, was immediately met with incredulous gaping; was Spacey really doing this? Was he using his homosexuality to avoid blame for attempted sexual assault on a minor? The Twitterati, who drive so much of our national conversation, cried foul, and Spacey’s apology makes him look even worse than he already did.
The issue we’re dealing with is fundamentally a moral one during a time when our culture is rent by moral divides; you can’t hashtag this and hope it goes away. The people angriest at Weinstein, at Spacey, at Bush, at Toback – they aren’t going to be satisfied with pantomimed contrition, and they’re the ones who must be satisfied.
In other words, even from a PR perspective, right now there’s no way to avoid squarely facing the problem, taking responsibility, and putting that responsibility into action. The issue is too large, too broad, too profound; nobody is going to think lip service or PR campaigns constitute a substantive response, and with the scandal continuing to spiral out of control, the organization that comes out of this intact will be the one that takes it honestly, legitimately seriously.
It’s the only way forward.