Posted by David Oates 5 years, 6 months ago


I was intrigued by a special investigative report by CNN reporter Drew Griffin that ran last week on how certain substance abuse rehab clinics are fraudulently billing the California Department of Health & Human Services. While the topic itself was of some interest to me, I was more tuned to what appeared to be some bush league errors by the agency's senior leadership and Public Affairs Division.

It seems that those in charge failed to respond to repeated inquiries by the national news outlet for more than a month. Their strategy was to do nothing; not even to provide a vague and veiled statement of some sort. Instead, the Public Affairs people, by direction or perhaps even their own choice, decided to turn a deaf ear. Now I get that they may not want to engage in what most certainly was going to be a negative story. It's an understandable first reaction. However, when an organizations decides to go that route, here's what happens in prime time (the video is 10 minutes long but well worth it).

Some in my field will be quick to blame the reporter and media outlet, but that's not at all where the fault lies. In fact, the reporter did his job extremely well. When Mr. Griffin approached the Secretary of California Health and Human Services, Diana Dooley, he did not ask any inappropriate questions, did not venture into areas not open to the public and did not impede her path. He even went so far as to try to make her more comfortable when she began losing her breath. Furthermore, CNN only used this tactic after exhausting other channels to obtain what is public information. In short - Mr. Griffin just wanted to get the facts. Yet California's Health and Human Services' response created the resulting media disaster that made the agency look at best inept and, at worst, corrupt.  

The whole thing could have been avoided entirely. Instead of running away and hiding, the first question that both the Public Affairs team and their bosses should have asked when the initial CNN inquiry was received was "is there any truth to the allegations?" If an internal investigation uncovered some cases of fraud uncovered, then a PR plan should be quickly created and an action plan developed to disclose what is known, how and when they intend to uncover all the relevant facts as well as the process to keep the media outlet and others informed. Though doing so would have brought forth inquiries from many other news outlets, this strategy would have given the state agency an opportunity to be perceived as on top of the issue. Yes - the findings are - without question - embarrassing, and there may be consequences if certain officials are found to have been not as diligent in their detection of fraudulent billings. But as you can see, the lack of appropriate public disclosure only exacerbates the problem by several orders of magnitude. Undoubtedly, the California Health & Human Services Agency now has others in the Governor's Office as well as representatives from the State Assembly and Senate houses all up in their business. Well, they can only blame themselves, both operationally and within their Public Affairs division.

So as I close, let me make a formal offer to Secretary Dooley. My team and I are more than happy to provide some Crisis Communications training for you and your staff. It's best to send me a message on twitter (@OatesStalwart)



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