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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 9 months ago

Overcoming a business crisis

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How to bounce back after something bad happens.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Beth Leytham is a self-described fixer.

She's advised mayors and business titans. The Lee Roy Selmon Expressway lane collapse? Leytham crafted the message to help move the story forward. Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, whom Leytham has battled with on issues, called her “the best PR and media relations person in town” in a 2015 Tampa Bay Times story. Leytham's bona fides in crisis management are so strong, The Maddux Report, a now-defunct regional business magazine, once dubbed her the Queen of Damage Control.

Leytham thought she had seen it all in her field. Or close to it.

But no one ever called her a “taxpayer subsidized slut” in a public Facebook post. And she had never been the target of a yearlong TV news investigation, where she was alleged to have unethically, and possibly illegally, used her influence with Tampa political leaders to steer government business to clients.

That's where Leytham found herself in late summer 2015. Sam Rashid, a Brandon-area businessman who Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board in 2014, wrote the Facebook “slut” post Sept. 2, 2015.

Rashid, who resigned from the board soon after the ensuing controversy, was loosely referring to information in an upcoming story from 10News WTSP TV in Tampa. That story aired Sept. 14, 2015, and was also published online. It contended Leytham used her influence with people like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan to win work for clients, and herself. Without using the crude words of Rashid, the story set the Tampa business community ablaze — and the focus was all on Leytham.

“I was placed in the unique position of sitting in my client's chair,” Leytham says. “For years, I was the fixer. Now I had to do all the things I told my clients to do.”

Leytham's experience is treasure map of how to survive a business crisis.

First, she says, she had a big ally in fighting allegations — salacious or otherwise, in the truth. She consistently maintained she never did anything improper or illegal, and outside of the 10News story, there have been no other allegations, and she was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

While that was a starting point, Leytham's strategy was to be proactive. “I didn't assume my reputation would speak for itself,” she wrote in notes she kept on the saga, “nor that the truth would prevail.”

While she calls the Facebook post “cutting and disgusting,” she also looked it at as an opportunity to push back, publicly. Says Leytham: “I turned it around, and said, 'You're the bad guy.'” Based on the social media outcry and public reaction, Leytham won that round.

Leytham kept up the strategy on the 10News story. She called every client and board she had been on to tell them it was coming. She shared public records. She had a law firm conduct an independent investigation, which countered the 10News story.

Leytham also contacted reporters she had worked with in the past, and told her side. She anticipated reporters' questions and gave clear and concise answers — advice she gives to clients. “It was never lost on me that this was an opportunity for me to show people how I do my job,” Leytham says.

There were other steps. Leytham hired an attorney, and her own crisis communications consultants, to get outside perspectives. Another key: She never got emotional in public. She vented to close personal friends in private, and adds, “don't think I didn't go home and cry” sometimes.

While the experience was grueling, Leytham says she earned the respect of current clients, and, at least indirectly, won new business by proving herself in such a public way. The Leytham Group, with two other employees, one being her daughter, Gillian Leytham, is thriving. “One of the things I did really well was I didn't go home and lick my wounds,” she says. “I came out fighting.”

The experience also led to a business epiphany. Says Leytham: “I have more empathy now for what my clients go through.”

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