April, 15, 2020 – It’s early, but there’s little doubt 2020 will be remembered for COVID-19.
That’s saying a lot because earlier this year, for the only the third time in history, a U.S. president underwent a Senate impeachment trial. The coronavirus has been so all-consuming that the fact it took 24 days for the Iowa Democratic Party to announce the winner of its presidential caucus seems like a distant memory.
Nonetheless, all three crises have something in common: a lack of transparency.
Chinese officials attempted to suppress news of the COVID-19 outbreak only to see the disease spark a pandemic.
The U.S. Senate acquitted Donald Trump, only after voting not to subpoena witnesses and documents and the administration refusing to comply with House requests for the same.
Party officials in Iowa, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found on election night as reporters and the nation awaited results, announcing in the early hours of the next morning only that the delay was the result of “inconsistencies” in the data and not a “hack.”
Silence isn’t golden
In all these cases, the lack of disclosure made bad situations worse, which serves as a critical lesson for leadership engaged in issues management and crisis communications.
Imagine if the Chinese had promptly notified the world about the outbreak of the coronavirus. Maybe the disease could have been contained in Wuhan or, at a minimum, the search for a cure or vaccine could have begun earlier.
Imagine if the U.S. Senate had agreed to hear from witnesses or if the administration had produced the documents requested. Maybe there would be fewer questions about the impeachment process.
Imagine if party officials in Iowa had been forthcoming on election night about the technical difficulties with an app in tabulating results. Maybe the reputation of the caucus process could have been spared.
Instead, leadership presumably wanted to avoid delivering bad news and hoped it would simply go away.
That’s the kind of mentality that existed not so long ago when, for example, a company would issue a new release saying an executive left to pursue other career opportunities … and a nondisclosure agreement to keep the inappropriate behavior a secret.
Transparency is a must
America’s declining trust in government and each other, however, has created a greater demand for transparency. As a result, today companies are more likely to disclose investigations into CEO indiscretions.
When McDonald’s fired CEO Steve Easterbrook, the company explained the move in a news release, saying he “violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee.”
When BlackRock fired two executives for romantic relationships with subordinates, the company announced it in memos issued to approximately 16,000 employees.
No doubt McDonald’s and BlackRock realized that, if not disclosed, news of their executives’ misconduct would spread, especially on social media.
Moreover, both companies likely realized any attempt to cover up their scandals would escalate the reckless personal behavior of executives into reputational harm and the possible loss of trust, confidence and, consequently, sales.
All too often leaders fret about the impact if certain uncomfortable information is made public. They should be equally concerned if it isn’t.