by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes, excellent communication comes down to simply doing the right thing. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Johnson & Johnson’s CEO William Weldon making a public announcement before an annual shareholders meeting and saying that he was accepting accountability and responsibility after a wave of product recalls.

However, the world of corporate America is filled with case after case of leaders doing the wrong thing and communicating in a less than honest and forthright fashion when the pressure is on. This pattern is particularly prevalent when lawyers are in the ear of a business leader telling him or her that communicating in a candid and honest fashion will only increase his or her potential liability in a court of law. Therefore, it is truly the brave communicator and strong leader that stands up in the face of such advice and, as I said, does the right thing.

Consider Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia. Five years ago, one of their youth ministers named Eric DeVries had allegedly “crossed the boundary of emotional and physical propriety in his relationship with female students.”

After initially not responding in a proactive fashion, the church’s governing board, known as a Session, issued the following public statement; “Members of Staff and of Session are profoundly sorry that Vienna Presbyterian Church’s response after the abuse was discovered was not always helpful to those entrusted to our care.” In a following sermon, Pastor Peter James took it a step further saying; “We won’t hide behind lawyers…Let me speak for a moment to our survivors. We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed in this church. I am truly sorry…I regret the harm this neglect has caused you.”

Now consider that the church’s insurance company, GuideOne Insurance, repeatedly told church leaders not to communicate in a direct and candid fashion. In fact, they sent the following warning to church officials; “Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit or apologize for anything that may be evidence of or interpreted as the actions of Vienna Presbyterian Church…caused or contributed to any damages arising from the intentional acts/abuse/misconduct” by the youth director.

My thinking is that the insurance company was doing its job. The lawyers were doing their job. And, clearly, legal considerations and potential lawsuits matter. But, doing the right thing matters even more. Vienna Presbyterian Church could have created a huge financial problem for itself by apologizing and accepting responsibility. However, no lawsuits were ever filed against the church in this case. Church leaders garnered tremendous positive good will from the congregation for the way it handled this embarrassing situation.

What some lawyers and insurance companies often miss is that when you stick to their script—admitting nothing, apologizing for nothing and virtually saying nothing—in an effort to limit liability, you are literally destroying your organization’s public reputation. And how do you put a price tag on that, because last time I checked, you can’t get your reputation back.

The bottom line is you need to own up and step up. Do the right thing even if certain advisors are telling you otherwise, because doing so—even when it hurts—pays off big in the long run.