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The cover up is worse than the crime

liar“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”, Bill Clinton

“I am not a crook”, Richard Nixon

“The problem is the floor mats”, Toyota

We can all add more items to this list of famous fibs. Why is it that when people and companies get in trouble that their first inclination is to stonewall, tell half-truths and often outright lie? Is this merely an inherant  human failing or is it arrogance that they are above reproach? For most of us, it all starts innocently enough when we were young and got our hand caught in the cookie jar. “Not my hand”. Alas some have graduated to other body organs (see Shaggy: “It Wasn’t Me”).

But the reality is when you lie you have to remember the lie, exactly, and continue to repeat it—and then you begin to believe it yourself. There’s nothing to “remember” when you are telling the truth. And when the lie begins to unravel, the story changes and evolves. When you lie there’s inevitably the “18 minute gap in the tape” and the “stained blue dress” that are subsequently discovered.  

I recently wrote about  Toyota’s current situation (Strumings blog February 6, 2010, “The mess at Toyota”). As I said,  it often comes down to “What did they know, and when did they know it”. With a cover up, the answers are always–A lot more than they admitted and a lot earlier than they admitted.

However, the one company I have always admired, which has been the gold standard of how to handle crisis communications, is Johnson & Johnson. J&J faced a horrific business nightmare in 1986 when seven people died from ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Instead of (legitimately) claiming they had nothing to do with the tampered products, J&J assumed all responsibility, withdrew all capsule product, and  then introduced triple seal packaging to eliminate future tampering. They put people first, before product. In so doing, even though they suffered a tremendous financial short term loss, they actually achieved a long term gain from people who will buy J&J products before others. I also invest in their stock before others, because I assume they will never cheat their investors.

In Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey speaks of a concept:

Integrity at the Moment of Choice

He means demonstrating integrity in the most difficult situation. The moment of truth is the testing point of our character and competence. Perhaps Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Toyota Motors should have paid more attention to this principle.  

We should always remember the cover up is worse than the original crime.

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