In the religious and nonprofit world, a leader's moral failure still has a major impact.
Along with the theological and scriptural issues, there's also a significant trust issue involved. The common thinking is that if he or she can't be trusted to honor marriage vows, then the leader is likely untrustworthy in other areas as well.
However you personally fall on the spectrum of that thinking, the truth is, churches, ministries, and nonprofits take a heavy hit when a leader has an affair, or worse, is involved in illegal sexual behavior. In these cases, how the organization reacts in the first 24 hours is critical.
Having advised numerous organizations through these difficult situations, here's my recommendations for the first 24 hours of the crisis:
1. Act quickly. In the digital era we live in, it's not just our theology or moral principles at issue, it's about telling the story and getting the facts straight. Otherwise, in our media-driven culture things can spin out of control pretty quickly and rumors and lies will mount up. In a text message world, word travels fast so you're living a dream if you believe you can hide it or keep a lid on it for long.
2. Call your attorney and get his or her advice. Especially if it involves minors, or downloading child pornography, not reporting it immediately can be a crime in itself. A good attorney can help guide you through that process and will know which authorities to notify.
3. Scrub the leader from all communications. If your pastor, executive, or leader is a public figure and featured on TV, radio, online, social media, or in fundraising, pull it immediately across all platforms. He or she may eventually be proven innocent, but once the accusations go public, people will use those images and clips to ridicule the organization. So get your web and media team to pull TV spots, programs, websites, or social media platforms that feature that leader.
4. Activate a crisis team. These are key leaders in your organization who understand the situation, can be trusted to deliver the accurate story, and are good on their feet. Get them together, go over the situation and implement your strategy. (You've already developed a crisis strategy just in case, right?)
5. Lead with the facts. Don't hide, embellish, or deflect. It will always come back to haunt you. That doesn't mean you blurt out everything you know, but it does mean whatever you say must be true—according to what you know at the time.
6. Be concerned and sympathetic to all parties. For instance, in the case of a pastor having an affair, never criticize or demean the woman involved. Particularly at this early date, no one knows everything about the situation, so never come across as harsh or unfeeling towards anyone. You need to express genuine sympathy, assure the public that you're arranging counseling, and are working to resolve the issue. In the midst of the initial chaos, remember that counseling and dealing with the spiritual and psychological issues are paramount.
7. Don't guess about the cause. I blogged here about not wasting precious time in the first 24 hours speculating why it happened. The problem happened, so let's deal with it for now. We'll have plenty of time in the future to look back on what caused the problem and make the proper changes for the future.
8. Develop a statement for the press that you've written with the advice of your attorney and media consultant (if you have one). It needs to be clear, express the truth about what happened, and outline the steps you're taking to remedy the situation.
From that point on, you should keep the press informed on a regular basis, work on any counseling for everyone involved, and make the necessary changes in the organization's leadership structure. Remember—the more you hide, the more people will assume you're not telling the whole truth.
While some may think a strategy like this is harsh or insensitive, the scrutiny can be white hot, and without the right response, negative press coverage and word of mouth can destroy an otherwise great church, ministry, or nonprofit. And that's the primary point here. You don't want a great work undermined or destroyed because of the innapropriate actions of one person. Don't act out of fear, anger or retribution, but act, and act now.
My advice is to keep this as a reference for the future. And if you'd like to discuss creating a "crisis plan" for your church, ministry, or nonprofit, please contact us here, and we'll help you navigate this difficult and challenging time.
Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media critic and adviser to some of the largest churches, ministries and nonprofit organizations in the world. He's the founder of the Influence Lab.