Stay Calm and Carry On — The Business End of Software: How to handle malicious rumors

Veteran’s Day is approaching and, with it, the finale of conference and workshop season for people in my business.  Lately I have been engaged with the less than scrupulous members of my discipline who engage in character assassination and rumor.  Every market has bad players, and one must make the choice of whether you want to run with the black hats or the white hats.  I’m not referring to hackers here but to individuals who are less than savory in their business practices.  So here are a few bits of advice in how to handle such issues:

a.  Bring the rumor to light.  The rumor only has power if it hides in the dark and is allowed to inhabit that realm.  Acknowledge that you are aware of it.

b.  Ask the recipients of the rumor to identify the anonymous source.  Small privately-held companies are not public personalities.  Individuals within companies enjoy the protections of private persons.  The individual or individuals starting a rumor must be placed on an equal footing with those who must respond to it.  Of course, someone who anonymously spreads a rumor and doesn’t acknowledge they are the source is a coward and scumbag anyway, and anyone who would continue to associate with them must ask themselves why they would associate with someone who is a coward and scumbag.  Just saying.

c.  Determine the facts being used in the rumor.  In some cases this could be a leaked document from a civil case that would otherwise go unnoticed, a messy divorce, or some other type of “documentary” evidence provided out of context.  Most individuals who initiate such rumors naively believe they are insulated because the item is “true.”  But it’s not that easy.  Perhaps documentary evidence is transient and unsettled with its release not only interfering with contracts and business interests, but also with a civil case.  Oftentimes a “story” goes along with the document.  The story may be a complete fabrication and, by itself, constitute malicious intent.

d.  If you are confident that you are in the right then state so.  Nothing hurts someone who takes the advice of counsel and says “no comment.”  There are constructive ways to dealing with malicious intent in addressing an issue in public.  Use them.  Hesitation gives the wrong impression–that there is shame or hiding.  If you think you are wronged then state so strongly and without hesitation.

e.  Don’t litigate in public.  If the public doesn’t have an interest in the basis of the rumor, then they only need to know that you are handling the situation.  If it’s based on an internal dispute within the company, then state so.  For example, if there is a possible reversal in a civil suit or unsettled counterclaims, litigating issues in public not only may undermine your case, but inadvertently also give credence to unfounded claims.  The United States is a very litigious country.  Not being involved in a civil case would be extremely unusual for any company.

f.  Once you have determined the extent of the whisper campaign, issue a press release or public statement that combines items a through e above.  Keep in mind that as a CEO or senior executive that your duties are to your customers, your employees, your suppliers, and to defend the interests of the asset itself–your company.  Do not be intimidated or feel constrained from executing those duties.  State clearly that your company will continue to vigorously defend itself and press its own interests.

g.  Don’t take it personally.  Deal with the issue as you would any one in which a competitor is attempting to undermine you.  Understand that desperate people do desperate things.

As a retired senior U.S. Navy Commander with a spotless record and with multiple personal awards and decorations–having risen from the enlisted ranks to senior rank when I was on active duty–and then having a pretty remarkable career thus far in the software industry, I have found that sometimes you run into challenging situations that will test your mettle.  There are individuals out there who are so desperate that they will do their worst in trying to taint or tear someone down, even without good cause.  They must bring things down to their own level because that’s the only thing they understand–a type of psychological projection.

Years ago on one of my tours on ship as a young Navy Lieutenant a senior Navy Captain imparted some words of wisdom to me.  He said that if you achieve anything of importance that there are going to be times when you are brought before the “long green table” to account for your actions.  Thus, one must always be ready to defend themselves.  This is a particularly important inevitability to accept because a good U.S. Navy commissioned officer is trained to understand that between an act of commission–that is, that you took action in facing a challenge–and an act of omission–that you did nothing in the face of the challenge–that the first was defensible and the second was unforgiveable.  The other good piece of advice was that eventually the system screws with you.  It’s how you deal with it that will determine your character.

Thus, in entitling this post I have quoted an old British World War II poster that was recently discovered in an old building.  As a leader you must demonstrate resolve and confidence, even in the most challenging circumstances.  Stay calm and carry on.  I couldn’t say it better myself.