I once heard that PR was what you heard about yourself when you were in the room and reputation was what they said about you after you’d left it.
Brand reputation is built through the actions you take, performance you achieve and troubles you encounter all in the bright sunshine of the public square. In brand moments such as these, fortune is smiling when they are all positive. Glowing earnings. Sexy acquisitions. Legal triumphs. All these burnish and advance your brand by fleshing out your story and adding depth and proof to your marketing messages.
When the news is not good, and sooner or later it won’t be, some of the hardest work of branding begins. Officers caught cheating. Dramatic, unanticipated losses. Products causing harm. Social media can spread such news immediately and without the benefit of fact checking to achieve accuracy.When a rumor goes viral, it is like a prairie fire. In other words, bad news can get worse. Mark Twain had it right..”a lie can travel around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.
The best way to deal with complex problems most often is elegantly simple…tell your story in your own voice and take immediate, decisive action to remedy the problem. Straightforward explanations that are not lathered in corporate speak or superficial hyperbole wins points for candor and humanity. Decisive action demonstrates resolve and begins to shift the focus to the remedy so as to provide positive balance to the bad news. In the long term, these hopefully momentary dips must be overcome by positive response and performance.
An example of how to deal with reputational problems in the worst way was my alma mater, Southern Methodist University during the football scandal. The University never seemed to take immediate decisive action to stop the ugliness and break a new trail. Through initial inaction, it created a lingering death penalty of its own, perpetuating the bad news, adding to it, and the University became linked to the scandal in boilerplate copy, even if the news was about paleobotany. Over time, with an intentional program of a continually improving academic environment, new buildings that exude vitality, a presidential center and a vastly improved football program, the mess is receding into the past. It is now a story of rebirth, but look how much time it took to get here and how much the University and its alumni suffered. The only way to deal with shameful behavior is to take immediate, forceful steps that exude abhorrence for immoral or unethical conduct. Penn State has started on a similar painful road, but at least has taken decisive corrective action.
Since I first wrote this, Coach Joe Paterno died. The story about what happened will continue to unfold, but suffice it to say that the wounds to everyone concerned will never heal.
Note: I read recently of the death of Patricia Dunn, the former chair of Hewlett Packard who was implicated in a corporate scandal involving spying and was forced to resign. As the story unfolded, she was charged with four felony counts and a major business magazine smeared her. The judge dropped all the counts “in the interests of justice”. I earnestly hope every news story about her death leads with her exoneration, but in our sensational age, I’m not optimistic.
Note Note: Two more current examples of poor preparation and response to bad news are Komen’s fiasco and Romney’s tax return debacle.