Crisis Communication in the John Furlong Scandal

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John Furlong | BCBusiness
John Furlong stuck pretty closely to the rulebook for communicating to the public during a crisis.

The recent controversy surrounding the Vancouver Whitecaps executive chair further proves the positive impact of tried-and-true communication strategies.

Former VANOC chief John Furlong has made two public statements regarding allegations that he physically and mentally abused children decades ago in northern British Columbia.
 
The shocking report in The Georgia Straight newspaper resulted in John Furlong making a statement denying the allegations. He adhered to the primary rule of crisis communication, and that is to speak up quickly and, in this case, to deny all accusations.
 
Where he didn't fare as well in his initial statement was his lack of clarification about grey areas such as how long he's actually been in Canada, as well as crucial details about his time in Burns Lake. These gaps in his narrative raised doubt, and the controversy grew.
 
John Furlong’s second misstep was that he took several days to clarify details about his time in Burns Lake, leaving people to wonder further about this grey area in his record. Where there is doubt, there is almost always distrust — or at least the seeds of it.
 
He won back some ground in his second "setting the record straight" statement, clearly answering questions about when he arrived in Canada and why he returned to Ireland. This heartfelt explanation earned him both empathy and understanding. Still, he is vulnerable about allegations that he altered his CV, and that’s where he became defensive in his comments.
 
Acting overly defensive can appear as guilt and can also trigger doubt. The best course here could have been to admit up front that he was not completely clear in his résumé, and the reasons why. Usually it is best to come clean, even if that omission is embarrassing or even shameful. The doubt left behind any appearance of avoidance can ruin reputations forever.
 
On a lesser point, bewared the use of CAPITALIZED or bold words in any statements. This tends to reduce your communication to the level of rant. Even if your first draft is all caps and underlines, try to edit to a more rational communication, even if you think the charges are irrational.   
 
The larger issue here is that this level of scandalous charge can happen against any public figure, and they will be tarred forever with a complaint that may or may not be even partially true. If you have holes in your history, or glossing in your CV, best to get prepared now to answer questions about why.



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