What to Do When You Receive Unwanted Sexual or Provocative Messages from Admirers

By Phil Cooke

You don’t have to be a leader for long before you start receiving unwanted e-mails, text messages, or phone calls from “admirers.” While some may be innocent, it’s difficult to tell at the start, and for the sake of your reputation and integrity, I recommend you take no chances. In our team’s work helping churches, ministries and nonprofits tell their story, I’ve seen leaders who have stepped down or been fired because of this issue, so please take it seriously. Remember that e-mail isn’t private. In a legal case, a police investigation, or a simple hack, your e-mails, text messages, social media, and phone records can become public in an instant.

So if you start receiving suggestive photos, intimate messages, or find that someone of either sex is reaching out to you inappropriately or without your invitation, here’s what I recommend:

1) Don’t respond.

In the future, just a response to an unwanted message could be taken as a sign that you welcomed the messages, or that you were involved. Plus, for trolls or someone obsessed with you, any response at all is an encouragement.

2) Alert your closest associates.

Share the message with your assistant, close associate, spouse, and even your attorney. Making it public early shows that the messages were unwanted. I received this kind of e-mail a few years ago from a woman who heard me speak at a conference. I not only shared it with my wife, our female assistant, and a producer in our company—I had my assistant respond. Once the female “admirer” knew that my female assistant was reading my e-mail, we never heard from her again.

3) If it’s persistent, you should block them.

If that doesn’t work, consider changing your e-mail address or mobile phone number. Try blocking the e-mail address, phone number or social media accounts first. In most cases, that’s all it takes to stop unwanted communication. But if that doesn’t stop them, get a new e-mail address or mobile number. Integrity is worth the inconvenience.

4) In some cases, you may want to give your assistant access to your e-mail account all the time.

I work with a number of pastors and leaders who do this. That’s a pretty good accountability method, because you can’t be fooling around when others have access to your e-mail.

5) If you deem it serious enough (sexually explicit photos, threats, provocative messages, etc.) then by all means, get your attorney’s advice.

What seems simple today can easily escalate into a legal situation.

6) Finally—in those serious cases, also get advice from a trusted media and communications expert.

There are some great attorneys out there whose goal is to win your case or protect you legally—and save your reputation. But saving your reputation isn’t always a priority in the courtroom. In my work with pastors and leaders in this area, there have been cases where my clients followed good legal advice, but years later, because the legal decision became a public document, it hurt them in the press. A trusted media counselor will also help advise you on how the public, press, congregation or donors will respond. So getting good legal and public relations counsel now can help deflect miscommunication, bad assumptions and an unfriendly reporter’s agenda in the future.

Sexual harassment and abuse is inexcusable, and it’s good that bad leaders are being forced to step down. But at the same time, there are good men and women who have simply not responded well when a potentially damaging situation is instigated by others. In a digital world, it’s easier than ever for an unwanted “admirer” to contact you by e-mail, phone, texting or social media. The key is to never put yourself in a situation where things could be interpreted incorrectly, and if you do, take immediate steps to correct it.

Phil Cook

Phil Cooke is cofounder and president of Cooke Pictures, a media production company in Burbank, Calif., that helps nonprofit organizations use the media to tell their story. Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilCooke.