Community Relations Lessons from the Burlington Telecom Debacle

BT VanNow that the Burlington Telecom (BT) debacle is heading toward resolution after five years of punishing headlines, it’s worth considering the community relations lessons for governments, non-profits and businesses. There are many lessons, too many perhaps to enumerate here. But the obvious ones, the ones that for some reason we never seem to learn include:

Got bad news? Get it out, and get it out fast, even if it hurts. You would think after all the cautionary tales over the years of private sector and government concealment and malfeasance, this would be a no-brainer. Apparently, not. How might the arc of BT have been different if back in 2008 Mayor Bob Kiss and Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold had come clean with the City Council and citizens about the controversial use of millions from the city’s cash pool to prop up struggling BT? Well, for one, it’s unlikely the mayor would have been re-elected in 2009.

Goodwill melts quickly. Recall all the glow and happy talk around BT when it was first conceived in 2002 and launched in 2006 as a municipally-owned telephone, Internet and cable TV provider. It would invigorate the city’s economy (likely some truth here) and strike back at big business. Notice the recent headlines and stories about BT. Nothing positive there. It will be years before BT recovers its glow, if ever, and that remains an impediment to its success, financial and otherwise.

Don’t take PR advice from your attorney. It’s hard to say who was writing the community relations script for BT, but it sure feels like a ham-handed legal brief. Attorneys are trained to navigate the law, not people’s perceptions and their government’s reputation.

Lack of transparency always has a cost. Often lies and half-truths have incalculable reputation costs to governments, non-profits and businesses. In the case of BT, the costs are real, in the form of higher borrowing costs since Moody’s downgraded Burlington to near-junk bond status. That means every taxpayer in Burlington bears the cost, every year, of former Mayor Kiss’s lack of transparency.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Of course, as humans, we fail to keep our promises — in small and big ways — all the time. But we expect our government, non-profit and business leaders to adhere to a higher standard. How did Burlington’s ostensible leaders, in 2008, calculate that an enterprise with limited revenue (a few million dollars a year) could pay back a total of $50 million? Must have been a miscalculation.

Be humble. Current Mayor Miro Weinberger is the one actor in this drama who has displayed humility. And the determination to get out ahead of the problem and solve it.

As much faith as I have in humanity and our American democracy, I know that debacles such as BT will befall our governments, non-profits and businesses again and again. At least we can hope for a more honest, more transparent approach to our human foibles in the future.

(Photo credit: AP/Toby Talbot)