This week, a Florida woman named Earline Davis was working the telephones at the health care marketplace call center and enrolling Americans in health care insurance (i.e. ObamaCare) when a talk show host called. She granted him permission to record the live, on-the-air call and answered his questions. She was fired the next day. Was this the right move by her company? Probably not and here’s why.
First, the story. When Ms. Davis answered a routine call to the hotline, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity was on the line and asked her a series of questions about issues with website enrollment, in addition to chatting about her training for the job, the weather and more.
When grilled by Hannity, she admitted to “glitches in the system.” She said she had been given a script to answer complaints and, at his request, read it verbatim to Hannity. “They told us there’s a
script for everything, so we just type keywords, look up that script and read it to the consumer,” she said. Asking about ObamaCare overall, Hannity said, “Have you ever got anyone who really likes it yet?” She answered, “No, not really.”
Ms. Davis reported that when she arrived at work the next day, she was met by three people who escorted her to human resources where she was told that speaking to the media was not allowed, and she was fired.
The problem here is this: (1) Ms. Davis claims she never was told in training that speaking to the media was against company policy and, (2) her employer has not claimed that Ms. Davis shared inaccurate information or deliberately attempted to damage the company. Ms. Davis seemed to speak honestly about her experiences at work and avoided personal commentary on the issues. For someone without media training, she did well in handling what often was an aggressive line of questioning.
The lesson here is obvious: Train the people who are your face to the public. If you do not specifically tell your employees that they should not talk to the media on behalf of the company and give them training on how to avoid doing so, you cannot expect them to handle the issue appropriately. Since there were scripts available, Ms. Davis should have had access to one that read, “My only job is to enroll people in health care insurance. So unless you need to enroll, let me find a supervisor who can talk to you on the record about any issues with the process.”
Let’s say that Ms. Davis was mistaken – that in fact, she was instructed not to speak to the media. Should she be fired? Still, the case can be made against it. First, nothing she said seemed to be inaccurate or damaging. Moreover, she was so pleasant and so personable that it cast a favorable light on an enrollment process fraught with issues. Finally, when everything you do is being microscopically critiqued –not to mention questioned in a congressional hearing – the last thing you want to do is create yet one more reason for examination. Now, as Ms. Davis appears on various news programs and people flock to offer her “better” jobs, you have yet another public relations crisis: Big Government Versus the Nice Mother in Florida Who Was Just Doing Her Job.
Although many are turning the tables to blame Hannity for Ms. Davis’ termination rather than her company, the bottom line is this – it should not have happened at all. If you say the wrong thing, it’s not the reporter’s fault – it’s yours. You are in total control of everything you say. So prepare, prepare, prepare.
What should a company do when an employee speaks to the media but should not have done so? It depends on the circumstances but in this case, a better tactic for her employer would have been a 30-minute crash course before the next shift for all employees on how to handle these types of issues in the future. Should the company speak publicly about the issue? I wouldn’t have recommended a public comment after the interview. Let it go. This could have been a one-day story reported primarily by a few media outlets. Instead, it has become a week-long story making its way through mainstream and social media.