The Difficult Art of Responding to Public Criticism

When accusations are flying or scandal erupts, it’s crucial to get the initial response right.

How do you respond when your agency or jurisdiction is called out for poor performance, terrible customer service or even scandal? When the charges are false, how do you correct the record without appearing defensive? When there’s some truth to the allegations, how do you regain public trust (and fix the problem)? This is far more art than science, but one thing is for certain: Nothing is more important than your initial response.

First, some tips on how not to respond. Don’t blame the messenger, minimize the problem or circle the wagons. That only raises suspicions. At the same time, it’s important not to accept the criticism at face value; you need time to investigate what happened. If there is some truth to the allegations, you’ll need to address the problem and recover from the bad press. Don’t make matters worse by issuing initial responses you’ll need to correct later.

And it usually doesn’t help to fire (or transfer to bureaucratic Siberia) a staff member who had major responsibility for the problem, although there’s often great pressure to do so.

The University of Virginia experienced some high-profile events in recent years that raised doubts about the prestigious public university’s truthfulness and priorities. UVa’s initial responses during two of these events offer guidance in both how and how not to respond to public criticism.

In July 2016, a former member of the UVa Board of Visitors, its governing body, claimed that the university had created a secret $2.3 billion “slush fund” to support “pet projects” and to improve its reputation. That’s serious money for any university. That amount, plus the board member’s terminology — “slush fund,” “pet projects” — ensured that her accusation would receive wide media attention.

UVa leaders didn’t apologize or get defensive. Within days, the UVa rector (the chair of the Board of Visitors) issued a statement noting that the fund in question had been approved by the board in a public meeting five months earlier. He explained the fund’s purpose and said the board had discussed it several times since 2014. He added that UVa officials would soon provide details outlining the sources and goals of the fund.

Just six days later, that detailed information was released. A UVa official explained that the fund would be used to minimize tuition increases, increase the financial aid program, hire new faculty and provide research money without straining operating funds. The university also posted a Q&A page on its website responding to questions being raised in the media.

A state legislator then charged that the decisions about the fund had been “all done in closed-session meetings.” Another stated that UVA has run “a covert surplus” for years, and announced an investigation.

A few days later, the UVa chief operating officer provided further records documenting specific public meetings held over the past two years at which its board discussed the fund, adding, “We have absolutely nothing to hide.” He also pointed out that the investment fund was included on the university’s balance sheet and audited annually by the state auditor.

The university’s leaders handled the initial response-to-criticism phase well. They:

• Acknowledged the criticism promptly, without going into details they had to put together.
• Took the issue seriously and didn’t minimize it.
• Provided a detailed, point-by-point response to each criticism in a timely fashion.
• Didn’t become defensive or blame the messenger.

Some of UVa’s leaders probably did want to castigate the messenger. She was the same person who, as rector four years earlier, had created widespread outrage when she convinced the Board of Visitors to fire the university’s popular president, only to “unfire” the president two weeks later following withering criticism.

UVa’s response to the “slush fund” allegation stands in marked contrast to its response to a devastating article in Rolling Stone magazine published in 2014. That article, since discredited and retracted, detailed an alleged gang-rape of a student who said that UVa officials responded passively when she reported the incident.

In that event, the president said that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct.” Then she left for an overseas conference. That led to outrage; she had called an alleged gang-rape “sexual misconduct” and then left town? After a law firm was hired to look into the rape allegations, university officials refused for over a month to say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Fortunately, UVa leaders regained their footing and soon started to take aggressive steps to deal with sexual assault.

Your initial response to public criticism poses significant challenges: You need to say something, but may not have enough facts to make a definitive statement immediately. Your superiors and staff will expect you to support them and the agency, even if the information you have suggests serious wrongdoing is possible or likely (consider a police chief’s dilemma when a video shows a white cop shooting an unarmed black man). You may face pressure to find a scapegoat as a way to calm the public and make it appear the problem is “solved.”

If you have a reputation for openness, honesty, and high standards, most people will be patient while you find out what’s going on … if your initial response is appropriate. Credibility is everything in this business. Be sure to maintain yours when responding to public criticism.

Public Projects and the Optimism Trap

Rosy, unrealistic scenarios just cause trouble down the road. It’s far better for managers not to deceive their leaders — or themselves.

On Dec. 31, 2007, the “Big Dig” in Boston was officially completed. The largest single highway project in the country’s history, it was nine years late and had cost more than $14.6 billion, a stunning $12 billion over budget. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the project was plagued by corruption, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws and the death of one motorist.

It’s not that the project itself was unnecessary. On the contrary, for decades traffic to and from Boston’s Logan Airport was terrible, and it was difficult for the most experienced Boston drivers to negotiate the tangled streets and constant congestion downtown. The project greatly reduced congestion, air pollution and confusion. But because of its well publicized problems, the Big Dig has become a symbol of big government at its worst — unethical politicians, contractors who cheat, costly projects, shoddy quality. Whether it’s highway projects, weapons systems for the Pentagon, or NASA’s two shuttle disasters, the stories of botched government projects seem unending. Why is that?

One answer, of course, is that good news doesn’t sell. When did you last read a front-page headline proclaiming, “New Government Office Building Opens on Time, Under Budget”? Many government projects are well designed and executed; we just don’t hear about them. We can’t change media that seem obsessed with bad news. But there is another factor involved with government projects gone wrong, a factor we can control. It has to do with unrealistic projections.

Let’s go back to the Big Dig. Roger Warburton, associate professor of administrative sciences at Boston University, found that engineers knew that the original projections of $2 billion were far too low. In the late 1980s the engineers “already knew it was a $12 to $14 billion project,” Warburton wrote. “They told everybody who would listen — including the politicians — and those people kept it quiet.” Politicians worried that realistic estimates of the project’s costs would have outraged the public and that the project would have been dropped. So the politicians essentially lied to the public.

In other cases, it’s civil servants who mislead the politicos about their proposed projects. Competing with other program managers for scarce dollars, they exaggerate their project’s likely benefits and guarantee that it will come in at a lowball cost. Sadly, many managers decide that they must play the same game.

And sometimes program managers deceive themselves. They’re not lying; they’re overly optimistic. They base their projections of costs and benefits on a best-case scenario — if everything goes according to plan, if all of the contractors produce on time and on budget, if the early proof of concept proves successful and we’re confident that our model will work … and so on. I call this the “optimism trap.” As the plaque in my mom’s apartment used to read: “Man plans, and God laughs.”

Fortunately, we can counteract the downsides of excessive optimism. Here are several ways to do so. Some of these ideas come from a 2003 Harvard Business Review article by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman, “Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions.”

Take “the outside view.” As Lovallo and Kahneman explain, the outside view requires a look at similar projects performed by other organizations. What were the initial projections? How long did it actually take? What was the final cost? What were the lessons learned? Taking the outside view helps us avoid the human tendency to see ourselves as better than others. It is especially helpful when starting an initiative that the agency has never tried before.

Bring in an expert who has no skin in the game. This is another way to take the outside view. A well respected expert who has knowledge of the kind of project you’re planning can study your plans through a neutral lens. She has no incentive to make overly optimistic forecasts. She also can spot potential errors in your reasoning and assumptions you’ve made that aren’t based on solid evidence.

Include various scenarios in your planning. Smart planners often develop best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios for their projects. They attach probabilities to each, based on current knowledge of the economy and interest rates, political trends, reputations of the contractors they rely on and the like. This kind of analysis can bolster a manager’s chances of getting funding, and it demonstrates the manager’s professionalism.

Develop a reputation for accuracy in making forecasts. Sadly, there’s a risk to avoiding the optimism trap and providing accurate projections of cost, timeliness and benefits: You could lose out in the funding game to other program managers whose overly rosy estimates are convincing to decision-makers. What to do? One answer is to talk with decision-makers about your track record — your projects that came in on budget, your programs that achieved their objectives. The message: Senior managers can have confidence in your proposals. And doing this can implicitly remind your leaders that others’ proposals fell far short of their promises.

To be clear: Optimism is not a bad thing. It is sorely needed in today’s political climate. Optimism helps us remain resilient during the inevitable ups and downs of life in the public fishbowl. But optimism, like all qualities, can be overdone. When planning and pitching a project, avoid the optimism trap and play for the long run. Your leaders will learn to trust you. And that trust is invaluable.