The Anatomy of a Whistleblower (+how to recover if your brand’s been impacted)

Rebuilding trust when your brand's been impacted.

3 mins

Whistleblowing can come in all shapes and forms - exposing dishonesty or fraud, dangerous or harmful practices, bribery or asset misuse and so on.

It can involve seemingly smaller misdemeanours undertaken by individual staff members - 'whistleblowing' sounds better than the schoolkid alternatives - or full-blown scandals that go all the way up.

Most businesses have an approach to whistleblowing. Report it to, and involve the right people, get the depositions down, work to resolve the issue, and close the book.

Except the next installation, the sequel to the factual, policy-driven chapters is usually the more challenging.

Rebuilding trust, rebuilding success, and turning a new leaf.

Suffice to say, your brand reputation can take a hit from whistleblowing, and no matter how vital the information was to disclose, recovering from the impact will always be top of mind for business leaders.

So whether you're concerned about false claims, resurfaced issues or someone who might divulge a wealth of insider information in tell-all books and interviews ahem, let's talk about your post-whistleblowing era.

Driving force(s)

Getting to the root cause of any decision or action is your best and your first tool. Think of it a little like a buyer persona - with an incentive or motivator, a decision-making process, and an end goal.

It's extremely likely your whistleblower's end goal is to establish the truth, shed light on perceived wrongdoing, and potentially protect themselves and others from long-lasting effects.

Anything else usually comes out in the wash, and it's also pretty rare that claims without supporting evidence make it much further than he said, she said. Given they're not always shown in a good light, it's worth stating that again:

The Vast Majority of Whistleblowers Have Good Intentions.

Understanding your whistleblower's motivators and keeping them at the forefront as you move forward will make sure your brand revival is genuine and demonstrates compassion and self-awareness.

ABCs of brand recovery (abbr.)

Acknowledgement. The approach any worthwhile PR pro will advise you to take. Acknowledging claims made usually comes in two stages: when the situation arises, and when a line's been drawn under it. Keep your messaging clear, genuine and honest, and agree on a direction to rollout across all your comms.

A quick line on this:

acknowledgement isn't the same as admission. If anything is still under investigation or dispute, lean on your compliance team, solicitors, and PR consultant to find the best line of messaging.

Bear it. You don't have to grin, but to an extent, you do have to bear the backlash. Your business will be responsible (and likely accountable) for mistakes and damage that have occurred. So defensiveness, denial and abandonment will only dig a larger hole. Remain open to criticism, loyal to the business and employees, and wait it out.

Caution. People love to screenshot. Screenshot, share, forward, peek over their colleagues' shoulders - anything you communicate may as well be carved in stone. Whether you're emailing a senior leader, recording audio, or on a video call, assume it's fodder. Because there's nothing to say something won't reappear in months or even years' time…

Dutiful. Some will argue it's a dying art, but there's a lot to be said about prioritising duty in times of reputational turmoil. No, it doesn't mean sticking by a business or individual(s) regardless of claims, but it does mean remaining true to the principle. Leaders' duties are to present a unified front, particularly to employees. It's not us vs. them - it's us vs. the problem.

Evolve. Arguably the most important step - the evolution. This needs careful consideration; improvements with impact take time to develop and implement, and even longer to establish meaningful change. Rush it and you'll have a patchwork quilt of a solution, and one that few people will buy into. Do nothing and you could be accused of neglectful leadership. Fine line.

No resolution happens overnight.

There's a lot more we can say about the aftermath of a whistleblower, so here's one final truth for you: whistleblowing can be a huge asset to your business.

Anyone choosing to come forward with relevant information is doing a huge service to your business - and doing so at a potentially huge cost to their personal and professional wellbeing.

They've provided you with the chance to address concerning or alarming circumstances, make vital changes within the company, and move forward with a fresh approach.

The next move is on your side of the board. While you should take all claims and information seriously, there's not always reason for alarm. For every one step you're thinking of taking, think it over twice. Avoid empty promises, and certainly avoid theorising or casual chit-chat about claims made.

No one - investors, customers, employees - wants to be associated with a brand embroiled in gossip or accusations.

The smoother the process, the smoother the transition to the other side.

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