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Good communications does not fix bad behaviour

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Crisis communications has been part of our company’s services for over 20 years. Over that time we have been called in to advise on all manner of situations. And every time, one of the first things we look at is whether the company or organization did or is doing something wrong. If so, our advice is always to fix it.

Our position is that if a company isn’t committed to proper, ethical behaviour, its problem is deeper than just a communications issue, so communications isn’t enough to fix it.

Which brings us to Sun Life and Bank of Montreal. Here are two multi-million dollar companies that had refused pleas from spouses of people who made poor, irrational financial decisions because they suffer from dementia.

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In one case a man with Alzheimer's disease cashed in insurance policies the couple had paid more than $17,000 in premiums into over the past 30 years, policies that were to pay $140,000 on his death. The man in question cancelled them for a cash settlement of less than two thousand dollars. Despite pleas from the man’s wife, including medical documentation showing he wasn’t in his right mind, Sun Life’s response was to hang tough.

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And with the Bank of Montreal, a similar story. A 76-year-old man with dementia borrowed $70,000 to purchase a new vehicle, even though he already had a car. That commitment was for seven years of $800 monthly payments. His wife tried to return the car, but because her husband refused to give her power of attorney, BMO said they couldn’t take it back. But meantime, he wasn’t making the payments.

So the car just sat there. After the man died, his widow tried again to return it, but rather than repossess it, the Bank of Montreal instructed its lawyers to go after her house.

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These are examples of companies behaving badly. Both cases have now been resolved, but the thing is, the resolutions came only after they got wind that CBC’s Go Public segment was going to expose this behaviour.

CBC did the story anyway, which is how I and I suspect many others heard about it, as it was on radio yesterday and The National last night.

In its letter to the spouse saying it would reinstate the insurance policies, Sun Life said it was doing it on compassionate grounds. Funny how the compassion only showed up after the CBC did.

Which brings us back to my point at the beginning of this blog, that if a company isn’t committed to acting ethically, no amount of communications is going to make everything all right.

These cases got resolved because they were going to become public. But what about the others, and there is no doubt there are and will be others? At a time when experts say Alzheimer's is only going to become more frequent, is the corporate policy of these companies, and others like them, to only exercise compassion when they are shamed into it, as was the case here?

If so, that’s pretty messed up, and will do precious little for their corporate reputations.

If you missed the Go Public item, it’s on the CBC website, right here.

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