What comes to mind when you hear the word 'whistleblower' in connection with an employee or former insider going public with allegations about unethical or illegal activities at an organisation? Is it 'troublemaker', 'rebel', 'dissident' or even 'extremist'? Or are such individuals much better characterised as high-minded, ethical, self-sacrificing and ultimately heroic?
It is a litmus test that relates to the first and perhaps most important challenge facing any organisation that finds itself needing to frame a response to such allegations.
Whistleblowing is hardly a new phenomenon but, fuelled by the anonymity and speed of distribution offered by WikiLeaks and other whistleblowing websites, it seems to be on the increase.
A whistleblower instigated the current Serious Fraud Office investigation into aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce over bribery and corruption allegations relating to contracts and work in China.
An insider also made disclosures that led to BAE Systems being fined £280 million in 2010 after pleading guilty to two criminal changes in the UK and North America elating to paying middlemen in Tanzania and Saudi Arabia.
Greg Smith, a former Goldman Sachs executive, last year published a book aiming to expose the investment bank's allegedly 'toxic' culture, while fellow bank UBS was unmasked by a whistleblower for helping clients dodge US taxes.
Other whistleblowing case studies posted on whistleblower.co.uk, a website that offers to sell stories to the national press while maintaining the informant's anonymity, concern London 2012, the BBC and the Halifax subsidiary of Lloyds Banking Group.
Whether their allegations concern corruption, fraud, breaches of The Bribery Act or gender, age or sexual discrimination, whistleblowers can provide organisations and their corporate communications advisers with perhaps their severest tests and cases are rarely straightforward.
They also remain sensitive after they have been resolved with BAE Systems as well as Rolls-Royce among the companies choosing not to comment for this article.
What are their motives?
'I'm always slightly cautious about whether whistleblowers are really the outstanding corporate citizens that journalists sometimes want them to be,' says one corporate communications director with experience of dealing with a whistleblower.
'A genuine whistleblower is someone who feels they're not being listened to but has a genuine grievance and is perhaps working in an organisation whose culture is behind the times. But whistleblowers generally have very mixed motives and are not always the heroes of the day.
'On the surface, people feel sorry for a whistleblower because they assume they're the wronged party, a vulnerable employee raising the flag for fairness and justice.
'In fact, whistleblowers can be people who are basically holding you to ransom. Sometimes they're people who were not very good employees, were dismissed and now want to get revenge.
'The problem is that when you're a big corporation, you don't tend to get the benefit of the doubt. It's the lone individual that tends to get more sympathy.'
From a corporate communications perspective, the biggest challenge can therefore be determining whether a whistleblower has a genuine grievance or is simply personally grievous.
That can involve a cumbersome process of interviewing line managers, supervisors and workmates and it will undoubtedly involve legal departments, whose advice may well be contrary to best corporate communications practice.
In that process, the nature of organisational leadership becomes key, say corporate communications experts, pointing out the difference between a chief executive who's prepared to grip the situation robustly, face up to unpleasant truths and sort them out and one so tied up by his legal department that the PR department becomes hamstrung in terms of what it can do.
'In many companies, the leadership is of a different generation from the bulk of employees and open knowledge and information are seen as a liability,' says Ross Gow, managing director of reputation management agency Acuity Reputation. 'The old view that knowledge is power encourages them only to share what they absolutely have to.'
In many cases, however, whistleblowers are genuine people taking personal risks to expose practices they believe to be wrong.
It's not disloyalty
Coping with them requires organisations that are used to jumping through every hoop for their chief executive to take a wider societal view, seeing loyalty not narrowly in terms of compliance with senior management but rather through allegiance to an organisation's goals, value statement and code of conduct.
After all, if they are indeed exposing wrongdoing, whistleblowers are acting far more in the best ethical interests of their organisation, the public, clients, or capital markets than anyone attempting to suppress their disclosures.
According to this view, genuine whistleblowers should be welcomed, applauded and actively encouraged by corporate structures and line management.
Indeed, Gow believes active programmes promoting and supporting whistleblowing can be a key anti-corruption tool in an environment where the 2008 financial crisis and The Bribery Act have led to increased focus on accountability, transparency and the identification of unethical behaviour.
'Employees represent a valuable resource to companies who want to minimise fraud and wrongdoing and many people believe they should be encouraged to say if they see something and then praised or rewarded for speaking up, rather than be vilified,' he explains.
Such programmes need to be structured carefully to ensure that whistleblowing remains an emergency call in extreme circumstances, rather than a substitute for good day-to-day communication across organisations.
Gow advises that they need to be well advertised internally and externally in order to not only attract genuine disclosures but to foster a culture of responsibility and care that becomes part of an effective organisation's DNA.
However, incentives, such as cash payments, to inform on others, need to be properly thoughtthrough, since they could attract agent provocateurs and lead to inappropriate reports being made.
Equally, Gow says that, while issues of confidentiality clearly have to be taken into account, organisations should consider the value of publishing, for the benefit of its employees and other stakeholders, the outcomes of past investigations into whistleblowing allegations.
'If you don't communicate whistleblowing findings, employees don't find out the outcome and lose faith in the system,' he says.
Speed of response is also of the essence when dealing with media inquiries about whistleblowing cases and the advice from communications experts is to marry this as effectively as possible with the need to be open, transparent and honest.
The standard response appears to take the form of using a holding statement to state that the organisation is looking into the concerns, and will respond as soon as possible, while stressing that the behaviour in question is not condoned and action will be taken to remedy the situation if processes and systems have fallen down.
Thereafter, if investigations find there is a case to answer, issue an apology, hold an inquiry and look to repair the damage and the situation as soon as possible.
Ring the hotline
However, dealing with whistleblowers has also become a risk management issues for major companies, including some that haven't had much experience of them and many organisations, including energy group Centrica and The Co-operative Group, now offer independent whistleblower hotlines to deal with concerns and complaints.
The problem with such solutions is that 'whistleblowing' has become a catch-all phrase to denote a wide range of concerns and careful distinctions need to be made between routine matters of company policy and disclosures that could make the front page of The Sun.
'We have an ethical helpline, which anyone with concerns about the way they've been treated can call, but I don't really regard that as a whistleblowers' hotline,' says John Neilson, director of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at defence and aerospace business Lockheed-Martin.
'There's a shared responsibility here and anyone with concerns, from the top down, can ring the helpline and get advice about what to do next. It lets people understand that the company expects certain standards of behaviour.'
Ultimately, successful corporate communications handling of whistleblowers' allegations can not only collaborate in the search for truth and justice but also shape the direction and future of organisations and lead to better companies, employers, business and government.
'Whether our whistleblower did what they did for the right reasons is something I'm still not sure about,' says the in-house communications executive quoted at the beginning of this article.
'But it certainly led to a huge cultural change that was right for our organisation. Looking back on it now, I think that, whatever the whistleblower's motives, it ended up being for the best for the company.'