Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Shirt. The Lie. The Seal. Lessons for Associations

Matt Taylor (l); Jonathan Gruber (c); Robert O'Neill (r)
Three men have been prominent in the news this month. Their stories show associations what can happen when a leader, staffer or member get “off message.” This can create big issues for associations.

Here are the three stories:

The Shirt

From Scientific American 
During interviews streamed to the public about the Rosetta’s Phil lander mission, Project Scientist Matt Taylor described the mission as the “sexiest mission there’s ever been”, but not “easy.” He conducted on-camera interviews in a colorful shirt patterned with pin-up images of scantily-clad women. Social media exploded with negative comments about the shirt’s sexist statement while ignoring the mission’s huge success.

The Lie

From the Washington Post
Multiple videos surfaced in which MIT economics professor Dr. Jonathan Gruber (sometimes labeled the “architect” of “Obamacare”) was quoted saying “the stupidity” of American voters and their “lack of economic understanding” made it possible to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Documents showed Dr. Gruber may have been paid as much as $6 million for ACA consulting with the Administration and various states.

The Seal

From The Associated Press
Former Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill, who says he fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden, played a role in some of the most consequential combat missions of the post-9/11 era, including three depicted in Hollywood movies. And now he's telling the world about them. By doing so, O'Neill has almost certainly increased his earning power on the speaking circuit. He also may have put himself and his family at greater risk. And he has earned the enmity of some current and former SEALs by violating their code of silence.


In each of the three cases, a “rogue” individual created public image “issues” for the organizations. The shirt was a distraction to the success of the Philae lander; the Gruber videos put the Obama Administration on the defense; and the Seal posed potential security issues to the U.S. military.
  • The project director apologized.
  • The Obama Administration disavowed Gruber and his connection with the President and Obamacare. (Unfortunately, past videos showed the President and other Democrats using Dr. Gruber as a health care expert supporting passage of the ACA.)
  • The SEALs responded about the breach of confidentiality.

What Associations Can Do

How can associations prepare and respond to such “rogue” actions?
  • First, train and coach your members, volunteer leaders and staff on appropriate actions when speaking publicly.
  • Second, have a clearly defined crisis communications plan that spells out how the association responds to situations such as these.

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