It takes a solid strategy, self-discipline, and patience to reshape public perception.
Several times a week, I receive an urgent email along these lines: “I think I need to hire you. Google my name and you’ll see why.” These individuals’ financial and legal representatives are struggling to help them repair damage to their good name after an incident or event.
If you’re an investor, publicist, agent or attorney, you might work with clients who find themselves in the crosshairs of a personal reputation crisis. The list of possible reasons is endless, and I’ve heard them all. Maybe you’re advising a client who’s experienced one (or more) of these situations:
- Violated company policy.
- Been accused of defamation or libel.
- Said something inappropriate in a media interview.
- Posted or shared something offensive online.
- Been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- Angered former employees, investors, reporters or love interests who’ve taken to social media for revenge.
Reputation repair is a subspecialty within reputation management. And it’s getting greater attention in our current climate due to the #MeToo movement, higher scrutiny of corporate executives and the visibility of social media. These factors exponentially have elevated demand for individuals to live authentic, culturally acceptable lives whose careers embody that same meaning. But sometimes they don’t.
A crisis is inevitable when public perception of an individual’s value and contributions conflict with who he or she wants to be. It’s a very public type of dissonance. Reputation-management specialists are trained to help people navigate options, design proactive strategies, manage the emotional rollercoaster and recover after the dust settles.
It can be challenging to wake from a perception nightmare. My clients’ names, companies, careers, and livelihoods are in jeopardy unless we can resolve the issue or repair the damage. Sometimes we must pivot, changing how the individual is seen in a specific market, with online audiences, within a company or in a home community at-large. In these cases, I often wish I’d been involved earlier to help minimize the negative impact or avoid larger missteps.
In the words of Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
Several reputation-repair companies propose a two-pronged digital approach: They’ll manipulate Google algorithms so critical posts don’t show up first and then spin a story to change the way an individual is seen publicly. They charge a lot of money for this work. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
It’s true that clients need quick triage. But they also need long-term solutions to right their reputations, for good. Here’s how — with examples from real-life clients whose specific details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
1. Set realistic goals and expectations.
If a client is facing multiple criminal charges for assault, it might be unrealistic to position him or her as friendly and approachable. When counseling your clients, talk about the reality of the situation and the gravity of public perception. You need to acknowledge both to rebuild or reboot their personal brand.
This understanding is the basis of setting attainable goals. Is it feasible your client will work again in her or his previous industry? Should your client refrain from posting on social media? Does reputation repair need to come from your client’s community or followers instead of directly from the perceived wrongdoer? What is a realistic timeframe before the situation or damage is in the rearview mirror?
Expectation-setting will not be easy for your client. Use your legal, administrative, financial and PR tools to gauge their sense of reality about what they’re facing. If your client isn’t willing to accept certain, realistic limitations, other experts might be able to help adjust expectations from the outset.
2. Assess the damage.
Conduct a thoughtful and thorough perception sweep of the reputation hit’s after-effects. This includes assessing the digital impact such as social media, online relationships, and Google search results. The evaluation gives you a baseline. How serious is the situation? Sometimes the way we believe the situation to be is not reflected in the business impact of the damage.
One of my clients was accused of sexual harassment several years ago and sued by two former employees. The parties settled the suit, and the case went quiet. My client received adequate training to manage his behavior and focused on building his company.
As his organization grew in visibility and notoriety, those former employees banded together and began personal attacks via several social-media review sites. This caught attention, making current and prospective investors nervous. They questioned whether my client’s past behavior was part of a pattern that could jeopardize their stake and expose them to risk.
I performed a solid perception sweep, considering social media, traditional news outlets, and market reputation. My findings confirmed the past incident was “isolated and resolved” in the marketplace and posed no risk to investors, employees or customers. The proactive approach enabled my client to take control of how he and his company moved forward.
3. Separate emotion from the necessary work.
It can be difficult to help clients separate feelings from facts, even if you’re trained in dealing with highly emotional individuals. A reputation crisis is a deeply personal ordeal that plays out on a very public stage. Each online comment, rejected meeting or funny look reinforces their vulnerability. Help your client understand what’s true and what is merely believed to be true.
Another of my clients suffered from terrible workplace bullying during her time with a large company. Her colleagues intentionally left her out of key meetings or critical email exchanges, then claimed she ignored invitations and messages. They spread rumors about her marriage and home life. These “adults” went so far as to snicker at her when she passed by. My client spoke to her supervisors, who repeatedly told her it was her imagination and offered suggestions on projecting a more confident persona. This went on for several years.
By the time my client left the company, she was emotionally shattered. Needing to find a place she felt safe and capable, she took a new job well below her skill level. There were other drawbacks, too. The poor track record at her previous employee and her demotion in taking the lesser job tarnished both her professional resume and her credibility in her field. She had to reclaim her career so she could again work at a level that reflected her capabilities and qualifications.
We focused on facts only. Our frank conversation removed the high emotion. Which aspects of the situation should she claim accountability for, and which were beyond her control? What behavior was hers? What belonged to colleagues with questionable moral compasses? We picked apart what happened and the choices she’d made in response to hostile conditions. Then, we re-established her career plan, building on her successes and downplaying shortcomings.
4. Thoughtfully plan your media strategy.
You’ll need to decide whether it’s smart to proactively issue a statement, craft a message and choose the right person to make the statement. That’s the easy part. Understanding the pre-work and after-effects of communicating with the media — traditional and online — requires finesse.
Not every reputation-repair strategy leverages the media. In some cases, pulling away from the public view is a better approach. One client in Australia needed to quit social media cold turkey and cease responding to media inquiries. The news surrounding his situation was too hot; the community and his industry, too upset. In the immediate term, the best strategy was not saying anything. Later, when we could communicate more effectively, rebooting his reputation through media channels proved valuable to shape public perception.
Another client, an attorney, had acted as a public spokesperson for a prominent executive and his business. The attorney had low credibility, and he lacked the charisma and acumen needed to create a positive media impression. As a result, he could not effectively defend the executive in the court of public opinion. We pulled the executive out from the attorney’s shadow, connecting him with a trusted journalist who helped tell his story — in his own words.
5. Pick your social-media fights carefully.
Social media is like traditional news media in one important way: It requires careful planning and strategy. If your client has engaged in social-media fights before involving you, the damage may already be done.
Whenever possible, remind your client of the uncontrolled and volatile nature of the online community. When people are upset, hurt or angry, they lash out. Give them a keyboard, and they can tell the world. In many cases, upset people need to vent. Engage in a battle with them and you’ll get a very visible war that’s permanently etched in the public realm.
Instead, use social media as a feedback tool, a perception meter and a way to share the good, honest reality of what’s being done to make things right. Worked correctly, social media can be a goldmine. Wielded incorrectly, it can make reputation repair very challenging.
6. Explore all the options.
As the world becomes more transparent and Google makes mistakes more longlasting, a client may need to explore unpleasant options. They shouldn’t rule out serving time for the crime (figuratively speaking) instead of spending years fighting allegations, switching industries or even changing names.
One of my clients had spent five years and all her resources suing her former employer. She felt justified and sought justice at all costs. Her reputation and career were tightly bound to the lawsuit’s headlines, and anyone searching her name online inevitably would see the play-by-play. She was battling a giant corporation with the resources to keep lawyers on speed dial. She depleted her savings account, and her marriage failed. Only then did she realize the fight wasn’t worth the tremendous toll it had taken.
This certainly wasn’t the outcome she’d hoped for. By the time she was referred to me, her options had narrowed. To rebuild her reputation and career, we needed to untether her from the headlines. She changed her work focus, returned to her maiden name and employed other tactics. These moves helped rebuild her confidence so she could pivot to a future that held opportunities for income and happiness.
7. Be honest with yourself (and your client).
If you’re out of your depth, admit it. Seek help or training to craft messages, answer media requests or advise your clients how to represent themselves. One timely, informative example provides a lesson from two parties currently involved in a legal dispute. (Full disclosure: Neither is a client of mine.)
Aly Raisman is the face of Team USA gymnasts sexually assaulted by their longtime team doctor, Larry Nassar. After the Senate hearing on these abuses, Raisman approached Sarah Hirshland, the new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). Hirshland told Raisman she was not permitted to speak to her. In fact, Hirshland wouldn’t even shake Raisman’s hand.
As pending litigation continues between the USOC and assault victims, it might be sound legal advice to avoid public greetings. But the “brush-off” created an optics problem that translates into questionable reputation advice. Whatever time the USOC spent crafting the CEO’s messaging was wasted at that moment. The media didn’t talk about Hirshland’s plans to fix entrenched problems. Instead, headlines said she snubbed Raisman. The new CEO might have fared better if she’d been advised to remain courteous. Perhaps she could have expressed a desire to work together with athletes after the legal proceedings are over.
The lesson: If ever you find yourself wondering if you should consult an expert, hire one.
Candidly speaking, clients aren’t at their best in a reputation crisis. They feel powerless as others thrash their names and question their values. The shame of the situation can be devastating. Your clients need a trusted advisor who can counsel them to look at the big picture. While Google and Facebook might be forever, your clients can retain dignity and assert control over who they are and how they choose to show up in the world.