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8 Lessons From Taking on the Government (and Winning)

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"The Fearless Girl" statue facing Charging Bull in Lower Manhattan, New York City. "The Fearless Girl" statue facing Charging Bull in Lower Manhattan, New York City. quietbits/Shutterstock.com

Las Vegas has built a multi-billion dollar tourism industry on the tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” In today’s information environment, the exact opposite is true: what appears on the internet stays on the internet forever. So what do you do when stories about you appear that cast you in a less than flattering light? There are ways to defend your reputation and get your side of the story out in a clear, convincing, and indelible way.

In the summer of 2015, I engaged with a client who ran afoul of a powerful federal institution. In the course of her work, my client identified systemic gender bias in her organization’s recruiting and training procedures. In fact, she had 40 years’ worth of data supporting her case. She had implemented local policies and procedures that significantly improved employee performance within her division, but when she became vocal about systemic sexism in the heavily male-dominated organization, the leadership fired her. Moreover, the organization’s leaders engaged in a deliberate campaign to damage her reputation. Overnight, my whistleblowing client was catapulted into national-level news media and branded as a “toxic” leader.

It was the most important case I’ve ever taken. That’s because my client, then Lt. Col. Kate Germano, is also my wife. For the next 36 months, she and I fought back against an institution to which we both had been deeply committed—the Marine Corps (I retired in 2015). She emerged from the experience with her reputation intact. She recently published a book about her experience, and she is now viewed as an expert on gender bias.

Our hard-fought journey can serve as a pathway for others who find themselves in similar situations. So, what did we learn as we fought an institutional Goliath? Plenty.

Rule No. 1: If you are going to take on a large institution, you must mentally prepare to go it alone.

A good rule of thumb is to always do the right thing, but when doing the right thing runs counter to prevailing organizational politics, you have to be prepared to leave that organization.

Organizations will often attempt to publicly shame whistleblowers to dissuade them. Taking a principled stand on an issue has a clarifying effect on one’s social network. In many instances, people you consider friends and colleagues will distance themselves from you and engage in self-protecting behaviors like avoidance, equivocation, and distancing. Groups will often engage in mobbing behavior to minimize their previous association with the whistleblower. Taking on powerful institutions is lonely work that’s not for the faint of heart.

Rule No. 2: Determine your strategic objectives before you begin and then stick to them.

Perhaps the best piece of advice we received as we were strategizing was to clearly define success. We quickly determined what Kate wanted to achieve and established five strategic objectives. The first was to ignite a greater national-level conversation about the issue of gender bias in the workplace. The second was to ensure the media got her side of the story. The third was to ensure wrongdoers were held accountable; the final two were of an administrative nature. Before we made major decisions in our media campaign, we religiously referred to these five strategic objectives to ensure that we were staying focused on our goals. If a suggested course of action did not directly support them, we declined the opportunity. By being explicit about our ends, we were better able to coordinate the options available to us and leverage the limited means at our disposal.

Rule No. 3: Form an advisory council.

Research shows that human beings are far more rationalizing than rational—especially under prolonged duress. When you or your organization becomes the object of public scrutiny, it is inevitable that those directly involved will lose objectivity. Early in our fight, we formed a circle of trusted advisors and respected mentors and would consult with them before taking any major action. This group was able to help us see the pros and cons of our proposed actions and map out the secondary and tertiary orders of effects. They also helped us forecast how the Marine Corps might respond to our actions. Their input was invaluable. Seek out frank, smart people to advise you who care about your issue and have the courage to disagree.

Rule No. 4: Confine your discussions with the media to the greater higher purpose you seek.

From the onset, we knew Marine Corps officials would try to paint Kate as the antagonist in their story. Instead of confronting our opponents tit-for-tat, we always elevated the conversation to our greater higher purpose: reducing gender bias in the workforce and increasing expectations of performance and opportunities for women. We knew that by doing this we would be able to attract wider media interest beyond the government sector where she worked. We elected not to conduct a point-by-point refutation of accusations and constantly hammered our strategic messages. By doing this, we gained a strategic advantage of choosing the times and places we would engage and this helped us frame the larger national discussion. Later, after we firmly established her position on the record in the national media, Kate was approached by a publishing house and offered a book deal. We leveraged that opportunity to tell her side of the story in full.

Rule No. 5: Get to the press first with the truth.

Mark Twain once said, “The only reason God is good and the devil is evil is because God got to the press first.” Public relations professionals know that those who speak first gain the strategic advantage of framing the issue for follow-on discussions and reporting. Stepping into the national spotlight on a divisive issue is daunting and invites criticism from all quarters, but the advantages of acting first cannot be overstated. Federal institutions and large corporations are slow, burdened by layers of bureaucracy. Advocates and whistleblowers, by comparison, are light and fast. This strategic agility is one of the very few advantages whistleblowers have over large institutions. In Kate’s case, she knew the Marine Corps was building a case to fire her. I immediately began planning our next moves, writing press releases, building a targeted distribution list of influential reporters and key members of Congress and their staffers.

When we received indications that Kate would be fired, we moved first and reached out to a trusted reporter to break the story first. By moving faster than our opponents, we built operational tempo and put our opponents on their heels from the start. Despite their massive advantages in size and resources, Kate and I were about to outmaneuver them in the press and on Capitol Hill and ignited a national discussion about her issues on our terms.

Rule No. 6: Don’t carry your own water.

Self-endorsements are rarely persuasive or compelling. Kate and I sought out other trusted and credible people willing to speak to the media about her character and her track record as a successful leader. We approached her mentors, leaders who had previously worked with her, and current and former employees to speak both on and off the record to back up her story. Their courage and support were invaluable and their third-party endorsements helped reinforce and defend her reputation.

Rule No. 7: Build a social media army.

Concurrent with identifying people who were willing to speak on camera or on the record, we also built an email distribution list of people who supported Kate and were willing to engage online. When stories were published, we notified our social media army. By doing this, we increased the probability that the first comments below the stories on news organizations’ websites and social media feeds would be supportive. These individuals would also push back against other commenters who wrote critical statements. This was essential in pointing out the fallacies in the Marine Corps’ characterization of the situation.

Rule No. 8: Media relationships count.

If the first time you meet a reporter is during a crisis, you are at a marked disadvantage. By the time Kate stood up and spoke out, I had been working in public relations for 16 years. I had unique opportunities to develop relationships with many prominent members of the national media. As public relations professionals, our currency is trust and our reputations are everything. Over the years, I worked hard to keep my relationships with members of the press current. More importantly, I always told them the truth, and when I was prohibited from giving them information, I told them why.

When Kate took on the Marine Corps in 2015, she did not know any reporters. I was able to help her by leveraging the relationships I built over many years. I had two key advantages over the institution we both had served: access and trust, while the Corps had a reputation for opacity. So, it is wise for professionals in every sector to meet members of the media and build relationships based on trust.

Taking a principled stand against large organizations, companies, or institutions is hard, lonely work that is fraught with many sleepless nights and periods of depression and despair. You can read about Kate’s battle in her book Fight Like A Girl: The truth behind how female Marines are trained.

Joe Plenzler is a public relations professional with more than 20 years of experience in communication strategy, reputation management, and crisis communications in the government and nonprofit sectors, including 20 years in the Marine Corps. He is a co-founder of Cassandra-Helenus Partners, LLC, a business leadership practice specializing in helping organizations improve workplace culture and responsibly mitigate damage and take corrective actions when things go wrong.

Image via quietbits/Shutterstock.com.

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