Reports of the death of investigative journalism in a world of shrinking newsroom budgets are greatly exaggerated. Layoffs have left many traditional media outlets with fewer and fewer investigative reporters. Yet a new cadre of non-profit investigators has joined those left in the traditional newsroom and together are leveraging easier access to data to create more impactful stories than ever. The targets of those investigations must consider carefully how to respond.

Today’s digitally connected investigative reporters collaborate around the globe to analyze larger and larger caches of data that are upending institutions, businesses, and governments from Iowa, to Iceland, to India. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ recent publication of the “Panama Papers” proves once again the genre is not only alive and well but has entered an era of greater potency and efficiency. Two developments have driven this trend over the past 10 years: first, the digitization of massive amounts of data and the high-speed access and technology to quickly analyze it, and second, the rise of nonprofits dedicated to the mission of investigative journalism.

An early example of this new style of investigative reporting was a 2007 Wall Street Journal Pulitzer-winning exposé of the widespread practice of backdating stock-option awards – a series that relied heavily on computer-enabled analysis of massive amounts of electronic data. That same year, the non-profit investigative powerhouse ProPublica was born, following in the footsteps of the ICIJ, which the Center for Public Integrity launched in 1997 at the dawn of the internet.

Today, newspapers that used to employ in-house investigative teams can outsource the work to these nonprofits that can mobilize hundreds of journalists to mine massive data leaks like the Panama Papers, leaked State Department internal communications and Edward Snowden’s NSA data to produce high-impact journalism with a global reach.

A leak like the Panama Papers, in the hands of the ICIJ, expands by several hundred, if not thousands, the number of people and organizations needing a crisis communications strategy. Some may ultimately face criminal charges, but it is also likely that others whose names have appeared in the massive data dump have not engaged in any wrongdoing.

Coverage of the Panama Papers makes little distinction between corrupt politicians or tax-dodging corporations and wealthy individuals who used legitimate strategies to reduce burdensome taxes or businesses involved in complex international transactions. It’s up to the individuals or organizations in question to explain their side of the story or they will simply be lumped among those who may have committed crimes.
Engaging with the journalists pursuing such leads is almost always the right answer – even if the information in question was obtained in a questionable fashion. Consistent with this approach, here are three crisis-communications principles worth reviewing:

  1. Sunlight disinfects. The sooner you tell your own bad news, the better. But tell it all. Otherwise, the drip, drip, drip can drag on for months.
  2. Respect other points of view. Compassion and empathy generate good will. You can be sorry for harm that comes to others without accepting or assigning blame.
  3. Denials supercharge headlines. Instead, focus the message on positives: what you have done, what you are doing, what you are committed to do and why.

On that last point, many of the 500 or so banks named in the Panama Papers coverage reportedly either declined to comment or denied any wrongdoing. Rather than issue denials of wrongdoing, better to make an affirmative statement: “Our firm is committed to upholding not just the letter but the spirit of the law. That commitment includes working with our regulators on ways to improve the financial system and the services we provide.”
Ignoring reputational threats almost never makes them go away. As Hill+Knowlton Strategies founder John Hill said, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And they’ll invariably get it wrong.”

Today, hundreds of ICIJ journalists are telling stories about scores of people and companies that should be telling their own stories, and the Panama Papers episode is sure to be followed by many more like it that will require thoughtful engagement.