The flurry of #MeToo-related allegations that recently have rocked high-profile individuals and business organisations shows the fuse of non-financial misconduct still burns fiercely post-Weinstein. Reputational impact reaches far and wide in the face of an investigative journalist’s pursuit of targets to name, and publicly shame, after an allegation has been made.
For the individual involved, if arrested and charged, there’s not just a trial under the public spotlight to endure, but the many months of professional paralysis beforehand, let alone acute pressures on their private life and endless sleepless nights taking their toll. Yet, as nightmarish as legal proceedings are, they at least have a clear endpoint. There is a court process and, importantly, one starting with the presumption of innocence. There’s a forensic examination of evidence, a verdict and potentially a sentence. Society puts faith in the expertise, checks and balances involved in establishing the truth. Sometimes the court gets it wrong – but it’s the most reliable system we have in this country of exposing fact and reaching a just determination.
If convicted, you pay your dues and subsequent rehabilitation is possible.
In contrast, paradoxically, should the allegations appear insufficient to warrant a criminal charge, the accused arguably faces a worse reputational position from which to defend themselves.
Investigations by Tortoise Media, The Guardian, FT and others, while no doubt painstaking, cannot possibly replicate the analysis and impartiality of a court case. The drip feed of innuendo, untested assertions, anonymous briefings and breaking of NDAs to reveal a person’s ‘truth’ is nigh on impossible to counter, let alone defeat, in the height of the media maelstrom. Coupled with a knee-jerk reaction by employers suddenly under intense scrutiny, a full pile-on can be triggered, with investors and intermediaries swiftly seeking to distance themselves from any perceived scandal.
Of course objectionable behaviour should always be called out. However, not all stories are quite as clear cut as first painted. #MeToo trials by media involve journalists acting as judge and jury, with nuance and mitigation too often left by the wayside. Few complainants actively seek public vilification of the perpetrator – an honest apology, cessation of the unwanted conduct coupled with improved, robust processes for prevention in the workplace can represent the necessary and appropriate resolution.
For those caught in the cross-hairs of a media pursuit, the prudent course is to let calm heads prevail and avoid the temptation to rush to act on every emerging new detail. Gather together a small but experienced team, share the facts, listen to advice, determine a strategy, consider the professional and personal ramifications, stick to a consistent narrative and allow others to go into bat on their behalf at the appropriate time.
This may not immediately stem the tide of suspicion while the storm rages, but will likely prove sustainable, allowing for a more balanced and fair appraisal of the facts as they emerge over time.
15th June 2023