How To Respond When Responding Is Illegal

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 11, 2012 – 6:22 AM

You represent an organization with a vulnerable client base, say victims of domestic abuse or recovering addicts. As a matter of policy, you guarantee your clients confidentiality.

But then one of your clients bashes you in the media. The client’s story is false.

What should you do? If you respond to the specific charges, you’ll betray your promise of confidentiality and hurt your work with other clients. If you don’t, your organization will be portrayed as clueless, heartless, or downright inept.

That dilemma was on the mind of one reader, who wrote:

“I have encountered dozens of occasions in which an aggrieved party goes to the media upset with how my organization is handling a situation that impacts them. To be blunt, the media is being spun in classic David and Goliath fashion.

In responding on behalf of my organization, I follow very strict privacy rules…that state an agency cannot disclose personal information about a customer. My concern is that the story almost always proceeds, full of all of the exaggerations and misinformation.

How does someone like me balance this adherence to confidentiality while protecting themselves from repeated stories that are reputationally harmful?”


Here are four possible approaches, in order from the safest to the riskiest:

1. Make a Statement: Although you may not be able to comment specifically on the charges made against you, there’s no rule preventing you from making a more general statement, such as:

“State law prevents us from speaking about or confirming whether or not someone is a client. Therefore, we cannot respond to specific allegations, even if they’re false. What I can tell you is that in general, most of the charges made against us are false, and news organizations that run with a story based on only one side’s account are at risk of running inaccurate stories. Worse, those stories unfairly punish other vulnerable people who will be less likely to seek our services to help them move past life-threatening conditions.”


2. Cry Foul To a Media Referee: Before or after the story runs, you can work with a competing journalist to combat the false charges. For example, you might consider working with a sympathetic columnist who understands the constraints you’re required to work within and who is willing to point out how unfairly the competing news organization is treating you. You might also consider working with an ombudsman or media critic if there’s one in your area.

3. Go Off-The-Record: As readers of this blog know, I rarely recommend going off-the-record. But if you have a longstanding relationship with a trusted reporter, this may be a time to consider it (just make sure you follow these four rules). Going off-the-record can help the reporter reconsider the story altogether, but be careful – even if you have a good relationship with the journalist, he or she may be able to nail down the facts from other parties and make it obvious to readers that you’re a source.  

4. Ask The Other Side To Waive Confidentiality: Plead for fairness from your accusers by publicly asking them to waive the confidentiality that prevents you from being able to speak. This strategy comes with obvious risks and may help you win the crisis while losing future trust from potential clients. Therefore, tread carefully here – but keep this option available for extreme circumstances when an aggressive response is warranted.

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Comments (13)

  1. By cksyme:

    This is good advice for people who feel their hands are always tied. My big concern is conceding anything about accusations publicly (most of the charges made against us are false). I just think there might be a better way to say it so it doesn’t imply that occasionally charges against us are true. What do you think?

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi cksyme –

    I’d like to open your question up to the readers – what do you think? How would you craft a brief statement without implying that charges against you may occasionally be true?

    Thanks for your comment and for reading,

  3. By Mary Denihan:

    I work for a government agency and our clients’ cases are confidential. If the client went to the media with a complaint and am approached by the outlet, I ask for the client to complete a release of information form and then we can respond. So far, I have never had a client NOT sign the release of information form.
    In the case referenced above, it reminds me of our sister agency that deals with abused children. One director had a policy that if the parent went to the media to complain, the director took that as authorization by that parent to speak about the case in question. The director was careful to only respond to the specific complaints made by the parent and not about anything else in the case. In most cases, the agency was able to set the record straight and not take unwarranted lumps.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Mary. That’s very valuable feedback.


  5. By David Z:

    While obviously I don’t have any “direct” experience in this sort of thing, I sometimes like a challenge. Sometimes. 🙂

    Anyway, will this work for cksyme?

    “At (org), we always strive to (purpose, mission statement, etc.). While it (or we?) feel/s (adjective like bad, terrible, sad, etc.) dealing with actual unfounded complaints/accusations, we are always and absolutely willing to work with everyone directly involved to resolve any misunderstandings and turn their lives around for the better.”

    Optional is to add “each case is evaluated in its own individual merits” or similar. Feel free to critique.

  6. By Turner Harriot:

    With respect for your opinion Brad, I agree with cksyme’s concern. I feel like you’ve outlined a very traditional PR approach which seems to assume everyone plays fair. My problem is that you described a situation where it was never intended to be fair. “The client story is false” and they are using confidentiality as a tool. This calls for a more political PR approach where we can assume there is an adversary plotting against you. The political approach is often used in crisis management and should be used more frequently in reputation management.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Turner,

    Thank you for your comment. I’d like to hear more about your suggested approach. On a tactical level, what does the more political approach you’re advocating look like? What specific advice would you offer readers who find themselves in this predicament?

    Thanks again. One of the best parts of the blog is conversing with/learning from smart PR pros.

    Best wishes,

  8. By Turner Harriot:

    It’s difficult to put it into words quickly. It sounds like you are outlining a common situation that is often dealt with in the reputation management arena. Sadly, the situation often gets handled incorrectly when someone treats reputation management as an individual expertise rather than a collaborative group of expert’s from varying and sometimes competing expertise’s working together towards the common goal.

    First accept that the adversary isn’t going to play by the rules. The adversary probably doesn’t care about what’s right or wrong. We don’t know enough to know what they care about and it’s going to hurt us if we assume the answer. There will always be a grain of truth to the false statements which gives the adversary enough credibility to gather an audience. Don’t carry a defensive conversation on in a public arena that you don’t control. Create other conversations around the negative one in places that are at least trusted to remain neutral or/and objective. Start creating conversation about positives and drown out the negative.

    I would suggest that people tread very cautiously if this is new territory. Recognize that someone might just be out to get your client. You have to figure out what the adversary is going to do next and take away that option.

    Brad, kudos to you for being willing to explore such a difficult topic.

    All the best,

  9. By Ivan:

    I’m unclear on #1. First you say that you can’t respond to a specific allegation. Then you say that the allegation is false. My question here is this…by stating an allegation to be false, are you not doing what exactly you say you’re not allowed to do (legally respond to an allegation)?

  10. By Brad Phillips:


    I just re-read point number one, and you’re right that it’s unclear.

    I think I know which part of the statement threw you off (I’ve bolded it below):

    “State law prevents us from speaking about or confirming whether or not someone is a client. Therefore, we cannot respond to specific allegations, even if they’re false. What I can tell you is that most of the charges made against us are false, and news organizations that run with a story based on only one side’s account are at risk of running inaccurate stories. Worse, those stories unfairly punish other vulnerable people who will be less likely to seek our services to help them move past life-threatening conditions.”

    I intended that phrase, “…most of the charges made against us are false,” to refer as a general statement, not to the specific allegation. However, it could be read both ways, so I’d amend the statement the following way to help avoid that confusion:

    “…in general, most of the charges made against us are false.”

    I’ve made that change to the original story. Thank you for your good catch.


  11. By Karen Swim:

    Brad, what a great topic to cover and all of the responses were thoughtful and insightful. I loved Mary’s advice and while I don’t have direct experience this topic is helpful to all of us. I would use the opportunity to reinforce the positives about the agency, i.e. commitment to client confidentiality and respect even when faced with false allegations. It’s an opportunity to redirect from the controversy by reinforcing the mission, vision and values of the agency.

  12. By Brad Phillips:


    Thanks for your comment. You’re totally right that the comments in this thread are particularly thoughtful. I’m fortunate to be able to learn from smart people on such a regular basis!

    Best wishes,

  13. By David Z:

    I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with Turner Harriot’s comment. Essentially, you anticipate the worst (e.g. being unfair), you acknowledge the issue brought up, and you focus on the positive to drown out the negative. (and sort of take the high road…)

    Thanks also for sharing, Turner.

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