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Debate: “My family is in the news for the wrong reasons – what should I do?”

Dennis Jaffe is a founding partner of Relative Solutions, a family business consulting company.

Hilary Morison is a PR consultant with Media Relations Management, a London-based media company.

Dennis Jaffe says:
The public loves to read about prominent families and they especially like a morality tale where wealth and ambition brings ultimate sadness, struggle and defeat upon the family. Therefore, when a family member feels wronged, or not listened to by members of a family, it is tempting to run to the arms of the media and take the grievances public. The other members of the family, however, rarely like to be in the news for anything other than positive stories about their community activities and philanthropy. They do not want their labour or ecological policies dissected in public, as companies like Wal-Mart or the Body Shop have experienced.

If what has been said has to do with ethical or social misbehaviour, there are some common guidelines. First, the company or family should respond directly and openly about the situation, offering facts rather than attacking the accuser. Second, they should acknowledge if they have been at fault, rather than stonewall or deny, and try to present their side of the story. Then, they should open up a dialogue about what can be done to mediate, repair or move forward. Often, when a family member is willing to talk about the issue in public, people feel more comfortable listening to another side of the issue.

In other situations, the matter is not an ethical lapse, but an argument where one family member feels he or she has been wronged by the family. In such a situation, the family spokesperson should be cautious. The media should not be used to open up a channel of communication with the offended party. One noted newspaper family would use the letters column of the paper to air family disagreements about politics or social activities. They would share things in public that they had difficulty sharing face to face, a policy that eventually led the family to be estranged from each other.

Why does a family member go to the media? Usually, it is to force an issue because he or she does not feel listened to. They want the public to be on their side. By reaching out, the rest of the family is giving the dissident a voice and suggesting that the matter can best be resolved privately. One advantage is that media attention spans are short – if an issue is not joined, they may soon lost interest.

When this happens, there are some clear guidelines for how to deal with it. First, if you are unfortunate enough to read about your family in the media, take a deep breath and pause – don't respond. If you do, you are amplifying what is a private matter into a public playing field. Take some time and talk to other family members. What is going on? How did this happen? As you talk, get beyond your feelings of anger and distress, and ask what you want to happen. Instead of hitting the ceiling and having a public fit, consider what you want to happen, and your strategy for responding.

Family disputes escalate out of control when the media is a partner. This happens especially when the offended party tries in turn to blame or shame the other person publicly in response. Somehow, the issue shifts to be about the response, rather than the grievance itself.

What most families want is to bring the matter back into the privacy of the family. There is a lot more to the story, which is no business of the public. So – try to seek out the dissident and find out what the problem is. Sometimes, having other family members there can keep the issue from polarising further. As soon as possible, you should open up communication with the parties involved.

While some families are tabloid fodder, others are enormously private. How do they maintain it? First, such families have created a clear family policy that is shared by all of keeping family matters confidential. One family I know has incorporated a clear statement in its family charter to say that the family is well known publicly, and therefore family members are expected to live quietly, and try to keep out of the public eye, except as part of a clear family community or philanthropic initiative.

Since the whole family has met and agreed on that policy, there is little chance it will be violated. And, more important, a family member knows that he or she will get a respectful hearing if there is something they are upset about. So, since they can find justice within the family, they are not tempted to find it in the media.

Hilary Morison says:
Dennis is right to highlight the need for different responses depending on the cause of the disagreement. When a family member goes to the media with a grievance the successful damage limitation PR campaign would additionally take into account the type and size of the business, as well as the perceived closeness of the family and the degree to which the dissenting family member is involved in business decision making. Are we talking about a distant wayward cousin who is throwing a very public tantrum or an aggrieved board member brother who is privy to sensitive company information?

For the former, this is very much a family matter and addressing the issue in public could prove counter productive as it would give the accusation credence and the disagreement more column inches. For the latter, however, proper planning, preparation and rapid execution are needed. The first move should be to clarify all the facts relating to the allegation and gain an understanding of what the reporter knows, their angle and their deadline. Also, get a feel for the type of media outlet, its editorial stance and possible agenda, but to do all of this quickly.

The media work to very tight deadlines and while you may do your best to respond quickly, anything more than a couple of hours is pushing it and the story could run without your carefully thought through response.  

If a reporter calls with what they believe to be a big story and receive a quick, confident and conclusive response they are likely to question the credibility of the original "revelation".  It is therefore important that all key stakeholders convene immediately to appraise honestly the allegations and the possible implications and to agree a response and appoint a spokesperson.  

Retaining a PR agency to act as a go-between is an effective solution, especially if no one in the family has been media trained. As a seemingly innocuous comment can have devastating consequences once it has gone through the media mill, the agency would counsel the family on messaging and filter all media enquiries.

A basic rule of thumb is, as Dennis points out, the more successful the business and the closer-knit the family, the more news worthy the story in the minds of the media.

A close knit business family being picked apart from the inside in the full glare of the media makes for headlines that shift units, particularly if that family in the past has made a virtue of presenting a united front to the outside world. The story will grow media "legs" if the family responds through the press and it isn't handled sensitively, turning the allegation into a public "spat".

On the whole, a one-sided rant that fails to illicit a reaction from the other party soon loses its new-ness and, in the process, its newsworthiness. But it is key to ascertain early on just how much sensitive information the vocal party has had access to and just how much they might be prepared to go public with – and the means by which they would do that. The rise of viral media for spreading harmful stories should also be considered as blogs, discussion boards, and social networking sites are often used to vent frustrations with devastating effect.

As Dennis's first example highlights, when the aggrieved party is going public over a legitimate concern that could impact negatively on profits, a reflective and measured public response is required, allowing the family to acknowledge the concern and then point to the measures that have been – or are in the process of being – implemented to rectify the situation.

The opportunity presented by having the ear of the media should not be overlooked in all of this. Granted, the reporter is calling up to get a response to the issues raised by the disgruntled party, but that does not mean that pre-agreed key messages should not also be woven into the press briefing. The media attention might not have been planned on the family's part but there is always some scope to work the situation to your advantage or at least to turn a negative situation into a neutral one.

Of paramount importance is that the first all-important response is seen to be calm, measured and "on message". 

debate, media, privacy, public
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