Staffer tell-alls demand quick response

Communications efforts really begin whenever a disgruntled employee leaves the organization

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir What Happened isn't due out until April, but recently released excerpts have confirmed that the book won't be a loving portrait.

In an excerpt, McClellan claims that President George W. Bush asked him to publicly state that senior officials were not responsible for the outing Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative.

"I had unknowingly passed along false information," McClellan writes in the memoir. "And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the Vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the President himself."

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have long denied any involvement in leaking Plame's identity, and Bush declared publicly that anybody in his administration found to be guilty of outing Plame would no longer work for him.

The White House has been relatively quiet since the excerpts were released, save for an off-camera commentary from newly appointed press secretary Dana Perino, in which she said that she'd spoken with President Bush and that he "has not and would not knowingly pass false information," according to NBC's Kelly O'Donnell.

With more than four months to go before the book hits the shelves, no doubt communications from both conservative and liberal sides will attempt to either marginalize or overemphasize the book's allegations. But McClellan's apparent candor has reignited interest in the case and reinforced what professionals responsible for managing politicians and corporate entities' reputation fear greatly: disgruntled ex-staffers.

"I'm sure the communications staff has already had their strategy in place," says Neil Dhillon, MD at Ruder Finn and a former Clinton administration staffer. "I'm sure they're ready to go and they're probably prepared for any additional allegations that may come out. The White House will have to respond ... they'll have to defend whatever claims Scott is making."

Of course, reputational damage can cut both ways. If there's any fabrication in McClellan's book, Dhillon says, "He's toast."

Corporations are not immune to the potential damage and embarrassment a former staffer can heap on its reputation, so all organizations must have a communications plan ready when a high-profile staffer leaves.

Rod Clayton, GM at Weber Shandwick, says that it's incumbent upon the company to establish its reputation well before the problem of a disgruntled employee arises.

"At certain times if the person bringing the allegations has credibility problems themselves, that needs to be made known as well," Clayton says. "If the company has a reputation for integrity and is trusted, then it would generally be the case that these allegations would be less likely to be pursued by the general public or the media."

Regardless of the merit of a former employee's post-employment criticisms - organizations should always be ready with a reactionary communications plan.

"With every former employee, you want to leave on good terms," says Dhillon. "That's why [organizations] have an exit interview, which consists of comments from employees about their experience"

He adds that the office of Presidential personnel often interviews outgoing White House staffers before their exit, though he was unsure if McClellan ever interviewed.

"There are always sour relationships between corporations and employees," says Dhillon. "A good HR department is constantly in communication with employees on a daily basis."

In the public and private sectors, confidentiality agreements can prevent an ex-employee from divulging sensitive information, but must tread lightly on free speech rights. As such, Lynne Doll, president of the Rogers Group, proposes that an exit interview could alleviate some issues before they lead to a PR crisis.

"I think exit interviews can be incredibly helpful in identifying potential problems in the company," she says. "If an employee gets the sense that the interviewer is taking them seriously and plans to do something about it, it can reduce those issues."

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