How to rebut allegations of sexual harassment

With allegations of sexual harassment and abuse swirling thick and fast in just about every industry, individuals in the spotlight need carefully calibrate their response.

Some of the accused – Harvey WeinsteinKevin Spacey and Robert Scoble spring readily to mind – have mangled their responses by appearing highly indignant and combative, overly defensive, cloyingly self-pitying or shamelessly deflective and underhand.

Handling true or partially true allegations about sexual misconduct is no walk in the park, especially when litigation is threatened and your reputation is in jeopardy. Misjudgements and mistakes of one sort or another are easily made.

By contrast, dealing with ostensibly true allegations should be a piece of cake.

If only.

Today’s climate of widespread distrust and more or less instantaneous judgement means the accused stand guilty in the court of public opinion until proven innocent.

Yesterday a number of individuals listed on a spreadsheet of Conservative MPs accused of various sexual misdeeds publicly rebutted allegations about their sex lives.

Two stand out as being particularly plausible.

Here’s Minister of State for Justice Dominic Raab MP responding to claims that he had behaved inappropriately with a woman:

Statement by Dominic Raab MP on The Westminster List

And here’s how Foreign Office Minister Rory Stewart MP took on allegations that he had asked a female researcher (aka Sophie Bolsover) to do ‘odd things’.

If the ensuing media coverage is anything to go by, most commentators believe the claims about Stewart and Raab were unfair and untrue.

There are some useful lessons in how Stewart and Raab made their respective cases:

  • Both responded quickly and strongly, supporting their case using demonstrable facts – in Stewart’s case public support from the person he was supposed to have misbehaved with, in Raab’s case a strong denial that he had ever used or been served with any kind of injunction (something that can be checked)
  • Both communicated in a straight-forward language and professional tone that appeared consistent with their respective values and backgrounds – Raab the lawyer, Stewart the explorer and diplomat – and therefore came across as credible
  • Neither resorted to overt or unreasonable legal threats against the list-maker(s) or spreaders – sensible when at a time of heightened public sensitivity about a highly inflammatory issue that may yet cause even greater damage to the Government and the broader Tory party, and when the identity of the list-makers remains unknown. (At the same time, both appear to have deliberately given themselves ample wiggle-room for a legal response when the heat dies down. Also noteworthy is the fact that the fully redacted list quickly disappeared from Twitter, suggestive of a speedy, high-level behind-the-scenes takedown request.)

Meantime, rumours continue to swirl around Westminster and beyond about those MPs on the list who have yet to respond publicly, substantively, or who are seen to have responded particularly defensively.

Given that sexual harassment as an issue appears unlikely to abate anytime soon, the heat is now on these individuals to make their case persuasively in public.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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