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.
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.