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.

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