Few things cause more damage to a carefully built brand than a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind. A stream of allegations emanating from an insider – true or not – will be given credence because they come from close to the source. This is the case whether the insider leaves on their own will, or is unfairly pushed out after being deceived with false promises as to the organization’s intentions.
This phenomenon was on full display last week when Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a retiring United Nations undersecretary, decided to inflict as much pain as possible on her boss, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Even worse for the UN, Ahlenius was in charge of combating corruption at the UN. So it was catastrophic when she wrote the following in a 50-page memo to Moon, leaked to the international media:
“Your actions are not only deplorable but seriously reprehensible …. Rather than supporting the internal oversight, which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it, which is to undermine its position.”
Ahlenius goes on to accuse Ban of setting up sham investigations instead of seeking serious findings. She sums up the entire UN under Ban’s leadership as “in the process of decay and … drifting into irrelevance.”
“Irrelevant” is the worst thing you can be considered as a professional association or membership organization, and that includes the UN. An institution that depends on membership to survive must make communicating to its members the top priority. Strategic communications can help associations and groups demonstrate their value to members – even if those members are nations. A public relations agency can help messages reach your internal audiences and members to reinforce your worth as an institution. So even if you have a UN-style incident, the goodwill and support you have cultivated in your members will overcome it. Of course, you will also need a crisis communications/management plan to mitigate the damage and chart the way forward.
In addition, basic internal communication and management dictates you set up a grievance mechanism for employees, one that respects their concerns. Even anonymous whistleblower functions allow employees to feel they have somewhere to go (Note: The UN has a confidential hotline but, at the undersecretary level, Ahlenius likely felt it beneath her).
Now of course, at 72 years old, the UN was likely Ahlenius’s last career stop – emboldening her to “tell all” since she isn’t worried about another job. The UN spends a tremendous amount on communications and marketing worldwide, only to have it all drowned out by one employee. The UN could react smartly and name a well-respected person to fill Ahlenius’s position and blunt the basis of her accusations. Instead, it appears the UN has settled on an “as-yet unnamed Canadian woman” for the role.
The lesson here is that smart membership communications are vital, if only to avert your need for crisis management in the long run.