Managing the High-Profile Investigation

Posted - June 30, 2020

Occasionally we get cases that are described to us as “high profile”, “potentially scandalous”, or “controversial”. When these cases come along our clients often have great concerns that everything is done perfectly with no room for criticism. When I hear this I think, “Does that mean our usual investigation is not perfect?”

Of course this isn’t what people are implying but it is reflective of the anxiety provoked by the involvement of high-profile people, the increased risk associated with some cases, or the potential for media attention. The biggest mistake that can be made in these circumstances is to move away from your standard practices. The key is to stick to what you do best and not to second guess your approach because of the people involved or the risk associated with the case.

Every investigation should adhere to basic principles of investigation that, if maintained, will ensure the investigator is protected and the investigation is sound. These principles centre on confidentiality, fairness, and maintaining an unbiased approach.

Appropriately Maintaining Confidentiality

Confidentiality is extremely important in cases where the people involved are well-known or the subject matter of the investigation is intriguing. As a professional, the investigator will of course maintain the strictest confidentiality but the parties and various witnesses may find this more difficult. In all cases, the investigator should remember to reinforce people’s understanding of the importance of confidentiality.

If a matter receives media attention it can be particularly challenging and frustrating to maintain confidentiality. The media will run with limited information and you may be prohibited from clarifying their misreported facts. The investigator may even be criticized in the media, making it tempting to want to set the record straight. The duty to rise above that temptation and adhere to the principle of confidentiality, however, is paramount. The consequences for satisfying a short-term desire to protect one’s self will most often lead to greater long-term problems, not only for the investigator, but possibly for other innocent parties.

When answering questions for the media, always listen carefully to what is asked and remember that you are under no obligation to answer questions. If you know the media will call, make sure you prepare and know in your mind what information you can share and what you can’t share. If cases like this are common for you, media and public relations training may be helpful.

In addition to confidentiality guidelines, privacy laws have made it difficult to share information. These laws often tie the hands of authorities and the investigator, preventing them from sharing information that might create greater understanding and reduce controversy. This is a fact that investigators must accept and work with.

Ensuring Fairness in the Investigation Process

All investigations must be conducted in a fair manner and everyone involved must see the investigation as fair. When someone involved in a matter is a “high-profile individual”, the other party may believe a fair investigation is not possible. The investigator must take the time to ensure the parties understand the process and have the opportunity to provide their input concerning witnesses or other information that may, in their opinion, assist in the investigation.

This does not mean the investigator allows the parties to dictate how the investigation will be conducted, but it is important to allow for their input and to explain why certain things may or may not be done.

No matter what the outcome of an investigation, people will not be satisfied if they believe the process was unfair.

Maintaining an Unbiased Approach at All Times

The fastest route to an allegation of investigatory misconduct is a perceived biased approach to the investigation. More than ever investigators come under attack by allegations of conflict of interest affecting outcome, conducting an unbalanced investigation, and emphasizing prejudicial or gratuitous information.

Investigators should expect some of these allegations as there may be no way to protect against them. For example, a company may hire an investigator to investigate its president. The investigator may be accused later of attempting to exonerate the president to ensure future business from the company.

The investigator can only fight this type of allegation through an appropriately conducted investigation that relies on the facts and is presented fairly. An allegation of this nature is an attack on the investigator’s integrity and, as insulting as it may be, it will happen. In the long-term, the best defence against an attack such as this is a strong record of acting with integrity. In the short-term, the best defence is to direct people back to the facts gathered during the investigation.

It is important to remember that an investigator’s verbal and written communication will be scrutinized carefully. Investigators need to be acutely aware of the things they say to people during an investigation and the manner in which they write their reports. Be cautious when parties to a matter ask your opinion about small, seemingly innocuous things. People invested in an issue may take a small thing and blow it up into something much larger.

Reports need to be clear, concise factual, and always provide the information gathered on both sides of an argument. If you write a report that calls for you to draw a conclusion, be sure the conclusion is well thought through and supported by the evidence. Don’t fall into the trap of believing something occurred and framing the facts to support your conclusion. Instead, ensure the facts point you to your conclusion.

Finally, when managing a high-profile case, relieve the anxiety of your client by reassuring them you will conduct the investigation as you do all others and you will maintain the principles outlined above. Keep the lines of communication open as appropriate. Remember there are three kinds of news: good news, bad news, and no news. No news is the worst and will create anxiety so keep your clients informed and aware.

In the end, a high-profile investigation heightens everyone’s awareness and creates anxiety for all involved, including the investigator. Maintaining the principles and approach that made you worthy of conducting the investigation in the first place will be your clear path to success.