Sunday, June 18, 2017

CASE STUDY, OnTrack: What do you do when pummeled by the media?

What to do when there is a bad story being told about you?   Tell a good story.

OnTrack was a success story.  It gained statewide and national attention as a model for how to do addiction recovery.  Executive directors of other programs around the country flew into town to tour the facilities and study OnTrack, an example of "best practices."   

Then it all fell apart.

They benched her.  Then the organization fell apart.
In my home community in Southern Oregon a local executive director of a nonprofit agency, Dr. Rita Sullivan, has received an avalanche of bad press in the local newspaper.  It is a kind of case-study example of what happens, and what to do.  And especially what not to do.

Sullivan led a drug and alcohol organization, OnTrack, for some 39 years as its Executive Director, bringing it from a tiny organization to a two-county organization serving clients with addiction problems, domestic violence problems, drug and alcohol convictions, and housing problems.  Her clients are difficult; they are people at a low point in their lives.  Worse, it is the nature of addiction disease to be a chronic one, characterized by relapses.  It is not like a broken bone that heals and becomes good as new.  Clients with addictions manage a chronic disease and it goes into remission sometimes, then returns sometimes.

Addiction messes up their family lives and their work lives, so poverty and homelessness are frequent complications.  

OnTrack housing
Some of the most effective counselors are people who have traveled the journey, so OnTrack counselors are often people with checkered histories.  This makes them simultaneously a "high risk hire" and also a potentially highly effective employee.

I cite these because OnTrack facilities, OnTrack employees, OnTrack clients are a management challenge, requiring constant monitoring and problem solving.

OnTrack had been a shining star of success and leadership in how to address these problems with state and national recognition.  Then, starting suddenly, bad press.

Last fall an employee filed a written complaint about her supervisor, Dr. Sullivan, saying Sullivan yelled at her and clapped her hands near her head, frightening her.  The OnTrack board did what it needed to do: put Sullivan on leave briefly so that they could investigate the complaint independently of Sullivan.  That is when the wheels fell off the organization.   Problems that would otherwise have been managed by Sullivan and the staff went unaddressed.  

Problem One:  Complaints about unaddressed problems went straight to the media.  There was an audience.  OnTrack was a big organization with some 300 housing units, over  hundred employees, and thousands of past and present clients.  It was front page news.   Moisture found under a carpet!  Suspicious mold located in a bathroom! A space heater placed by a client where a toddler could touch it!  The kinds of problems that are the daily grind of a landlord providing housing for low income high risk clients became news.

Bad press.  Just one iteration of many
Problem Two:  The OnTrack board seemed unable to address these problems other than by acknowledging that they were matters of grave concern.  Rather than acknowledging problems as a day to day matter requiring day to day management they accepted the premise of the complaint.  Worse, they forbade Sullivan either to come back to work to resolve problems or to talk with the media in any way.  The result was a disaster for OnTrack.  OnTrack failed to provide a credible spokesperson for the agency, someone who understood the context of problems and solution, had experience in fixing them, and had experience in telling this to the media. The narrative stuck: intractable and grave problems at OnTrack.  The alternative story of "Problems, Fix, Repeat" as the inevitable life in addiction recovery programs and housing was not voiced.  The critics got their story out and OnTrack did not.

Problem Three:  The media wants to be fed and OnTrack did not feed them.   OnTrack treated this as a legal problem, not a public relations problem.  Lawyers tell clients not to say anything.  They told Rita Sullivan she must not say anything.  The media was impatient and frustrated and over time turned hostile.  The result?  They perceived OnTrack as a hostile, uncooperative source and they made the inevitable response: construe everything in a bad a light for OnTrack.

Problem Four:  OnTrack's board could not manage the agency without its 39 year leader, Rita Sullivan, yet was stymied by apparent internal hesitation to re-install her as Executive Director.  I have no information about the internal discussion of the Board, but observation of their press announcements suggest indecision over whether to decide that every emerging problem that the current leaderless organization was encountering was an artifact of previous leadership, whether the problems were trivial, whether the problems were routine and solvable, or whether the problems were matters of grave concern.

Problem Five:  Rita Sullivan was made the scapegoat, but by implication, not evidence.  If OnTrack had genuine, provable evidence of actual misconduct by their longtime Executive Director presumably they would have presented it along with evidence that it had been wrongfully hidden from the innocent and trusting Board.  They did not.  Instead, they presented themselves as rudderless and weak, in effect ratifying the point of view of their critics, which then backfired when the original critic of Sullivan then turned her attention to criticism of OnTrack's board.  Oops.  Moreover, new critics came forward, including employees dismissed for significant cause.  OnTrack's board lacked the knowledge that would have de-legitimized or put context onto the critic, or knew it and failed for some reason to present it, with the result that wild charges were made and left unanswered by OnTrack.   More bad press.

Result:  Within six months an organization that had grown to be a significant and highly regarded community asset was spiraling into dissolution.   They were losing credibility statewide.  They were losing contracts with federal, state, and local agencies.  They were unable to retain an interim executive director.   The reputation of Board members Rick Nagel and Tonia Moro, who resigned to attempt interim management, have been badly damaged, an act of self destruction.  The reputation of the benched leader, Rita Sullivan, has been collateral damage.  The organization is damaged.  The community lost a resource it needs.

Rita Sullivan.  Collateral damage.
What might have happened, but did not:   The OnTrack board might have perceived this simultaneously as a legal problem and a public relations problem.  They needed promptly to investigate whatever claims made by the critic about the Executive Director and then re-instated her to manage agency problems, agency relations with regulators, and agency media relations.  OnTrack and Sullivan personally had a compelling and true story to tell, that problems are constant, inevitable, and that dealing with them was the endless job of agency management.  They did not need to deny the problems or even to minimize them.   They needed to embrace them and put them into the context of the difficult work of this or any other addiction recovery agency.

They failed to do it.  

How could they be so foolish and self destructive?   I do not know, but I have a suspicion based upon my service on other boards.   They panicked.  They listened to lawyers who said that they needed to close ranks, shut up, stonewall, minimize, and protect themselves from criticism.   It might actually be good legal advice, in general and in this case.  But the result is that the public and regulators got a clear message of an agency in crisis rather than an agency that confidently and competently dealt with crisis every day through experienced and conscientious management.

NOTE TO PEOPLE WHO WISH TO COMMENT:  There were a flurry of comments posted on this edition which were critical of Rita Sullivan, and then a flurry of others critical of the motives of that critic.   I was not comfortable with the various personal attacks--since I have attempted to keep the tone of this blog very civil and analytical rather than polemic.  But, having deleted them, I have now changed my mind.  If anyone wants to comment here I plan to leave them in place.  


  1. Excellent summary from what I know of the situation. Very sad story. Huge loss for the region.

  2. What to do when there is a bad story being told about you? I'm inspired by what Rita Sullivan did-- stay true to herself. Her values are helping the least among us, and cultivating personal integrity. OnTrack service to others has been her life, a brilliant PhD who could have and still can go to any institution where her intellect and dedication would be celebrated. Rita's personal and professional integrity drives her to continue trying to rescue OnTrack despite continuing adversity, like a wounded battle medic giving it her all to drag a victim to safety.

    The lyrics for Dr. Rita Sullivan are these: "But I would not advise those critics present to derive, any satisfaction from her fading star. She's the one who's kept us where we are". Jonathan Pryce, "She Is a Diamond", Evita.

  3. Years ago (1980's) I was hired to be the night supervisor at Ontrack because I had extensive experience with Adult Children of Alcoholics, with Helpline as a phone and Help squad volunteer for 3 years, and other such experience. Up front I will say I was let go for sleeping on the night shift one night (I had just nodded off once. I was living in a house where a man started loud machinery at 7am, so I could not sleep). I was given the good weeknight job over some weekend staff who were in line for it, and they sabotaged me on several occasions with misinformation.I was entrusted with the care of a baby, among all of the other children, who had severe breathing and other problems, who should never have been there without medical supervision. I was told I could not use my background to talk to the clients, even tho that is why they hired me, because of proprietary counselor rights to do this. It was a mess, to me, even then, and I was glad to go. I never met Rita (tho I knew and was not fond of her ex-husband John.)

  4. OnTrack will have critics, including people who had difficult and unhappy experiences as employees. The non-profit addiction recovery environment is one of low pay, high turnover, high burnout, difficult, frustrating work. I have fully expected there to be stories like the one Diane told, credible descriptions of way less than ideal situations. The truth is that our culture/government/taxpayers simply will do what it has to to try to help people with addictions but it will do it on the cheap, at best, No taxpayer wants to pay for top quality, high paid staff and facilities for the OnTrack clients. (When Hollywood stars get into treatment they go to the Betty Ford place, not OnTrack.) Diane describes a sub-par situation, and I expect that taxpayers generally resent paying even for that.

    This is why I have hoped OnTrack would, in effect, change the subject. The real story is NOT "are there problems?" The answer is yes, of course, and we should not be surprised. Instead, the real story is the one Thad Guyer above described poetically: Look at the aspiration in such a difficult arena, and look at the achievement.

    The media--and some of the critics of OnTrack and Rita Sullivan--focus on the problems. And they are real. But the story of the landing on D-Day was not that Eisenhower carelessly and wantonly killed American soldiers; the story is the effort and successful beachhead back into France. The story with OnTrack is not that someone found moisture under a carpet and the tenant had to move while a leak was fixed. Instead, the story is that a mother and child previously living in a car had a place to live while the mom was in treatment and the child in day care. This does not deny the problems, but it puts them into the context of the real story, which is the bold effort to do something very good and very difficult.

    I have decided to allow--even encourage--critics of Rita Sullivan personally and OnTrack generally. The casualties at D-Day are part of the story and the people with unhappy experiences at OnTrack are part of the story. In fact, oddly enough, they actually help make my point: that running this agency is very, very hard work, doomed to take place in an environment of clients and employees who think things could be better. Of course they could be better, always and inevitably.

  5. I have a very long case history with on track! I love the service they provide and it is sad to see how it has gone down hill! Due to the state not working with ontrack anymore my baby that was born on April 9 of 2017 was removed from my care 2 days after she was born she was being breadt feed as well as d was placed into community foster care! For those of us who need this establishment in crisis and no longer have it our entire family has to suffer. State did nothing to try to keep my daughter with me and refuse to work with on track because of what's going on. And now my baby girl doesn't get to have the bond with me that she should have had. Right now doors are closed on me and state still will not help me with a place for me and my children to be able to be re United. with that being said stop the non sence with on track and come too an agreement families are ripped apart because of this and its not right! I was 6 months clean and sober when my baby was born thanks to them! I would like to thank on track for all their help and support threw my struggle of addiction and for helping me be a better person today!

  6. I know almost none of the specifics of this organization or its turmoil, but after 35 or so years doing media relations professionally for a variety of organizations, Peter's analysis of the situation seems to me very astute. The standard counsel in this sort of fracas is for the board to identify a reliable spokesperson, typically a board member with strong communications skills, apologize quickly for the presenting misdeed and if individual critics begin to swarm, meet with media editorial boards to mitigate the fallout. It appears that in this case the board 'went into the bunker' with the lawyers and left Dr. Sullivan a muted and dangling target for critics and reporters. Mistrust between the ED and the board seems clear -- or were they really deer in the headlights?

    Could all this destruction have been prevented? It certainly could have been mitigated by quick and forthright communication, or so it seems from an outsider's POV. Unfortunately, legal advice and good PR counsel are often at odds, and sometimes the public response is a fear-based equivalent of 'no comment.'


Thanks for commenting. I am experimenting by allowing unfiltered comments. Warning. Some people write stupid, obscene things. I will delete them when I see them, but you might encounter them.

Do not include comments with links. I will delete those comments. If you really want to refer people to a link, then email me directly with your comment. I don’t want readers to be directed to weird third-party places, or mal-ware.