Fending Off An Agenda-Driven Internal Revolt
National non-profit network providing direct aid and support to individuals who have experienced specific types of trauma, as well as state and federal advocacy
A small faction of employees was attempting to stir up negative media attention about the non-profit in an effort to shift the organization’s mission to reflect the employees’ personal agendas. This small, but vocal group recruited a sympathetic reporter from a prominent media outlet and provided fabricated allegations, out-of-context internal communications and libelous claims against the group’s leadership. Dezenhall was brought in to combat the impending false media report to protect the group’s reputation among its donors, potential hiring pool, and the community the organization supports.
As the preeminent non-profit in its space, the organization has strategically adopted a non-partisan approach to its advocacy work, collaborating with allies from across the entire political spectrum. The client also serves an incredibly diverse population, providing support to anyone in need who comes through its doors. Despite its unique political positioning, the organization’s employee base skews relatively young, politically and socially engaged, and supportive of social justice advocacy. The client had to walk a fine line of not alienating their allies while constantly being pushed by some of their employees to be more engaged in social justice issues that fell outside the organization’s focus areas.
This dichotomy between the employees’ personal desires and the organization’s objectives led to an internal revolt by a faction of the organization’s workers against their non-profit employer. Several employees went to a well-known news outlet with exaggerated, distorted, and in some cases, outright lies about the organization’s culture and the client’s senior leadership team.
Due to the sensitivities around its work, any story that questioned the client’s moral compass would paint the organization as hypocritical, threaten its ability to raise funds, scare away the communities it worked to serve, and damage its ability to hire. Furthermore, the fraction of revolting employees wisely chose a news organization that was favorable to their social justice priorities and had a history of publishing salacious and unsubstantiated gossip.
Unlike many claims of hostile work environments, the client had a good story to tell and significant supporting documentation to directly refute many of the allegations leveled against senior leadership. Because they had operated in good faith, there was an extensive history documenting their efforts to support their employees while pursuing the organization’s stated objectives.
We employed a two-track approach to dismantle the employee and reporter’s false claims ahead of publication, while engaging defamation counsel to explore our client’s legal options.
We assembled a robust narrative of internal documents and mapped the history of the fractious employee group’s efforts to undermine the organization and its objectives.
After securing a detailed list of questions from the news outlet, we meticulously went line by line providing critical context to the issues raised and, in many instances, proved them to be outright falsehoods.
Seeing as the reporter had errored in rushing to print a gossip column, we pursued two strategic lines of communication – engaging our core audiences and stakeholders to correct the record and directly involving the publication’s legal team to pursue extensive corrections to debunk the story.
The dual track proved effective. The organization was able to make sure its top-priority supporters knew the story was defamatory while at the same time, we aggressively went after the outlet and achieved multiple rounds of substantive corrections. Each time we forced the publication to issue a new correction to the story, the client could show key stakeholders that the story was at best deeply flawed and at worst filled with libelous lies.
Our initial pushback to the reporter’s questions was so extensive that the publication chose to dump the story on a Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. This bought us time to pursue a dual-track approach before the story could inflict real reputational damage. Knowing we had a solid plan, with ample proof of the truth, we were also able to fortify the client’s will to fight back.
By the end of the weekend, the first round of corrections was published, holding off any external loss of support, and staving off any internal reactions that could have led to a second wave of media.
Over the next two weeks, further corrections were made to the story. These corrections culminated in being multiple paragraphs long, last in perpetuity and raise critical questions about the story’s accuracy to anyone who stumbles across the article in the future.
Despite facing an existential threat to their operations, the client was able to fend off a potential media firestorm. The organization continues to operate as the largest non-profit organization in their field.