Messaging Risks – When IS the Right Time?

There was an awful lot of outrage about the Nationwide commercial drawing attention to home accidents affecting children during the Superbowl this year. It didn’t seem that the outrage was so much directed at the message as much as it was the timing – it was done during a time when people were trying to be entertained, not horrified.

I have four young daughters, so I get that anything that makes me think about their mortality (much less my delinquency or negligence contributing to something that harms them) causes a certain amount of discomfort. A lot of discomfort. But I was with my family watching the game when this commercial aired and I have to say, though it certainly put a temporary damper on our festive spirits, it also caused a moment of reflection. I had forgotten about securing a television set in our home that could fall if one of my kids climbed on it (such a scene was in the commercial).

So I am supposed to be angered that I suffered a brief interruption of my precious and fleeting television entertainment-induced happiness to be reminded that I needed to do something the consequences of which could cause a constant interruption of my happiness for the rest of my life?

When exactly is the time for delivering messages that draw our attention to risks? The argument that this commercial was poorly timed because it interfered with our entertainment is, in my mind, absurd. Television is predominately for entertainment. Therefore, there could be no appropriate time for a commercial like this. Perhaps there are some shows that cater to the melancholic, where “depressing” commercials might resonate better?

The idea behind heightening awareness of risks is to draw the largest amount of attention possible to those risks. In the case of this message, using a Superbowl commercial was sure to reach a heck of a lot more people than some educational/informational show that airs in the middle of the night watched by a couple hundred people.

The public uproar stimulated questions relevant to my professional compliance and consulting work – Are we living in a culture that has no appreciation for hearing about and taking actions to mitigate risks? A culture that actually takes offense when we do?

In business, we need to appreciate, understand and act on risks. Yet compliance and ethics professionals face similar challenges with Boards, Executives, Senior Management and even line employees and/or agents of an organization. Though there is an expectation that these roles know about and deal with risks, it’s not something they particularly care to hear about, particularly in the higher ranks, where it is of great importance and impact. They prefer to discuss financial results, stock performance, mergers & acquisitions, etc. – you know, the REAL and IMPORTANT stuff.

I face a similar challenge when trying to develop proactive compliance and ethics consulting work. Organizations simply don’t want to hear about faint, non-imminent, and “philosophical” dangers that could sink or significantly impair their organization.  Much less do they want to spend a little money to properly deal with it.

Using the Nationwide commercial as an analogy, one might think the risk of an unsecured weapon in the home is minimal because one’s children have been well educated on the risks and, due to their obedience, would not play with the weapon. Perhaps true. But what about the kids who come over to play?

The rationalizations in business are really no different.  I can’t tell you how often I heard victims of a fraud (both when I was an FBI Agent and now as a consultant) tell me something like “But Sally was such a nice and religious lady whose been with us for 15 years – she COULDN’T have stolen from us!  You must have made a mistake.” 

To all the compliance and ethics professionals out there working hard to do the right thing, whose risk messages too often fall on deaf ears, I raise my coffee cup to you. You ever need an ear, my number ain’t hard to find.

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The Fraud Guy

John has over 27 years of fraud investigations, forensic accounting, corporate compliance & ethics, and audit experience. He has applied his extensive experience in these areas across a wide array of areas and industries, frequently assisting counsel, government agencies and companies with internal corporate investigations and other matters arising from alleged fraud or misconduct. John is a thought leader and expert on Corporate Monitors/Compliance Monitors, a practice area involving the imposition of an independent third party by a gov't agency or department upon a corporation to verify that corporation’s compliance with the terms of a settlement agreement. John has previously served in a leadership role in a federal Monitorship and was involved in six other federal monitorships: three as the named Monitor, one as the "Independent Business Ethics Program Evaluator" and twice in support of the named Monitor. In these roles, John has reported to the Department of Justice, the Department of Interior, the Department of Transportation, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Highway Administration and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. His practical experience as a Corporate Monitor and extensive knowledge in this area was applied to the development of formalized Standards for Corporate Monitors through John's Membership on the Task Force on Corporate Monitor Standards of the American Bar Association. John is also the Founder of the International Association of Independent Corporate Monitors, a not-for-profit Membership association dedicated to the practice of corporate monitoring. John is a frequently sought speaker on the topic and has provided practical advice, ideas and strategies to lawyers, government officials, and corporate executives involved in such matters, as well as newly appointed Corporate Monitors. Prior to Artifice, John spent over 5 years as a leader in the fraud investigations and forensic accounting practice of a large publicly traded international financial consulting firm. Before that, he served for 10 years as an FBI Agent, specializing in complex fraud investigations.

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