How To Respond When Responding Is Illegal

You represent an organization with a vulnerable client base, say victims of domestic abuse or recovering addicts. As a matter of policy, you guarantee your clients confidentiality.

But then one of your clients bashes you in the media. The client’s story is false.

What should you do? If you respond to the specific charges, you’ll betray your promise of confidentiality and hurt your work with other clients. If you don’t, your organization will be portrayed as clueless, heartless, or downright inept.

That dilemma was on the mind of one reader, who wrote:

“I have encountered dozens of occasions in which an aggrieved party goes to the media upset with how my organization is handling a situation that impacts them. To be blunt, the media is being spun in classic David and Goliath fashion.

In responding on behalf of my organization, I follow very strict privacy rules…that state an agency cannot disclose personal information about a customer. My concern is that the story almost always proceeds, full of all of the exaggerations and misinformation.

How does someone like me balance this adherence to confidentiality while protecting themselves from repeated stories that are reputationally harmful?”

Here are four possible approaches, in order from the safest to the riskiest:

1. Make a Statement: Although you may not be able to comment specifically on the charges made against you, there’s no rule preventing you from making a more general statement, such as:

“State law prevents us from speaking about or confirming whether or not someone is a client. Therefore, we cannot respond to specific allegations, even if they’re false. What I can tell you is that in general, most of the charges made against us are false, and news organizations that run with a story based on only one side’s account are at risk of running inaccurate stories. Worse, those stories unfairly punish other vulnerable people who will be less likely to seek our services to help them move past life-threatening conditions.”

2. Cry Foul To a Media Referee: Before or after the story runs, you can work with a competing journalist to combat the false charges. For example, you might consider working with a sympathetic columnist who understands the constraints you’re required to work within and who is willing to point out how unfairly the competing news organization is treating you. You might also consider working with an ombudsman or media critic if there’s one in your area.

3. Go Off-The-Record: As readers of this blog know, I rarely recommend going off-the-record. But if you have a longstanding relationship with a trusted reporter, this may be a time to consider it (just make sure you follow these four rules). Going off-the-record can help the reporter reconsider the story altogether, but be careful – even if you have a good relationship with the journalist, he or she may be able to nail down the facts from other parties and make it obvious to readers that you’re a source.

4. Ask The Other Side To Waive Confidentiality: Plead for fairness from your accusers by publicly asking them to waive the confidentiality that prevents you from being able to speak. This strategy comes with obvious risks and may help you win the crisis while losing future trust from potential clients. Therefore, tread carefully here – but keep this option available for extreme circumstances when an aggressive response is warranted.

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