(PennLive) Since the departure of longtime anchor Flora Posteraro in March, personnel matters at WHTM-TV abc27 have been playing out in the court of public opinion.
Staff changes. Internal complaints against management. A “complete investigation” of those complaints. A discrimination and retaliation complaint against management filed with the state. Social media posts from staffers and former employees who “stand with Flora.” The announcement of studio upgrades and programming enhancements. Lost advertising.
At what point does such a situation become critical?
“One of the biggest dangers [for] companies in the midst of a crisis is the drip, drip, drip of bad things happening,” said Josh Galper, a lawyer with the office of Davis Goldberg & Galper and a partner at Trident DMG in Washington, D.C. The firm specializes in strategic communications, public relations and crisis management.
“That can mean new facts that come to light that are not explained by the company,” Galpert continued. “It can mean a snowball effect of customers leaving the business because of reputation drag that goes unexplained. And companies going through a crisis need to get in front of the crisis and tell their stories, share their facts, in order to address reputational harm as quickly as possible.”
The grocery chain said in a statement that the move was in response to the ongoing complaints by several former employees against the station’s management.
Abc27 station manager Robert Bee on Tuesday responded to PennLive’s request for comment to Giant’s move, saying he “could not comment on personnel matters.”
Efforts to reach officials at abc27 and its parent company Nexstar for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Personnel issues at the station began to play out in the public arena in March, with the departure of Posteraro, who filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission against abc27.
In her complaint, Posteraro alleged that her dismissal was connected to a human resources complaint against Bee. Posteraro had been involved with the complaint.
Since that time, four other female journalists have left the station, and they have each made their own public comments about the work environment at abc27 or expressed support for their colleagues who have made such complaints.
Though the management of abc27 and parent company Nexstar have responded publicly to some of the allegations – including a statement to the Central Penn Business Journal and a brief response to a previous PennLive request for comment – officials have declined several opportunities for comment. In several instances, they said, it was company policy not to discuss personnel matters.
When personnel issues are making headlines, what’s the best policy?
“You see the issue here,” Galper said. “There’s a public complaint, so allegations are out there. It would be in any company’s best interest, when there are public allegations, to offer a response.”
‘When a crisis hits, the egg timer starts’
While Galper did not wish to comment on the specifics of the abc27 situation, he had general observations about the best practices for a company facing a public relations issue that was costing them customers as well as employees.
“When the crisis hits, the egg timer starts. Companies need to start immediately taking proactive steps to show they’re taking the complaint or the crisis seriously. It also entails communicating public complaints and the facts that they can share about it to all of their employees,” Galper said.
Nexstar and abc27 took action when the complaints against Bee was made: Theresa Underwood, a regional manager and vice president with the company, said that a “complete investigation” was undertaken into the anonymous allegations against Bee.
The details of those findings have not been released.
‘Saying ‘no comment’ just doesn’t cut it.’
But what about in situations when the company has compelling reasons not to speak – such as when dealing with employee information or other legal complications?
“‘No comment’ is not an option in today’s media environment,’ ” Galper said. “Only in the rarest of circumstances.”
Those sorts of cases are often a balancing act between a company’s lawyers and their media representatives.
“Public disclosure can be a great thing to clear the air, turn on the lights, create transparency,” Galper said. “But it can also make legal risk. Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot of silence. Often lawyers will tell you that they want to save disclosure of facts for litigation. Media people will tell you that it’s critical to get the story out and the facts out as soon as possible.”
“The courts can take a long time to hear a case, and in the meantime, a company can hemorrhage customers, business opportunities and even employees,” he said.
“Frequently it can be unfair. But it’s critical for whatever company is weathering the storm to get in front of the crisis that’s emerging and explain that the behavior in question is completely antithetical to how the company operates and what the company believes.”