“Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”
It was a damning question, put to the media in 1987 by Raymond Donovan, the former Secretary of Labor who was indicted on corruption charges for his work with a construction company accused of having mob ties. The media had a field day with Donovan. After all, it wasn’t every day you could paint a Reagan cabinet member as a mafia stooge.
Trouble was, the charges against Donovan didn’t hold up. Donovan’s attorneys never even put up a defense. They rested their case without calling a single witness, saying the prosecution failed to prove Donovan did anything wrong. The jury agreed, and Donovan walked out a free man.
Donovan was free, but tainted. Hence his now-famous comment.
Donovan was innocent. Not everyone is. In the digital age, people don’t often screw up in silence. Day after day, seemingly, there are headlines about executives losing their jobs due to workplace misconduct. What’s more, social media magnifies people’s misdeeds, creating a digital footprint that can alert people to incidents years in the past. That affects their ability to find new work and do business in the future.
We spend a lifetime building our reputation and, while we think they’re made of brick and mortar, reputations are more like a house of sticks, vulnerable to a huffing, puffing breath of wind. We can be defamed easily, finding ourselves on the defensive in the most improbable moments. We can make one bad decision and be judged by it for the rest of our lives. We can (rightly) be called out for awful chronic behavior that was ignored in the past. Sometimes, we can actually do everything right, but one unfounded accusation can define us.
Preventing a crippling blow to your reputation takes a tactical crisis plan, which needs to be catered to the specific situation. But all such plans have some factors in common: You have to be aggressive. You have to be dogged. And, if you’re in the wrong, you have to show contrition and commitment to learn from your mistakes.
The earlier you start, the better. My favorite example is Taco Bell’s approach to charges it didn’t actually use beef in its beef taco. In 2011, a woman sued the chain, claiming unfair business and advertising practices. Rather than settle, the company fought back. Taco Bell bought full-page ads in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other newspapers with the message: “Thank You for Suing Us. Here’s the Truth About Our Seasoned Beef.”
The ads noted that Taco Bell’s filling was a full 88% beef, and the company even offered its recipe to prove it. The ads also ended with a challenge to its detractors: “We stand by the quality of our seasoned beef 100% and we are proud to serve it in all our restaurants. We take any claims to the contrary very seriously and plan to take legal action against those who have made false claims against our seasoned beef.”
Taco Bell’s antagonists ultimately walked away with no money and no concessions from Taco Bell. Taco Bell walked away with its reputation not only unsullied, but strengthened.
Sometimes you can’t prevent a reputational hit from happening. Instead, you have to try to rebuild your reputation from scratch. That approach takes a similarly aggressive tack. The best example is Michael Milken. He popularized the junk bond when he was at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s. They were such a great product that savings-and-loan institutions bought them in droves. When the junk-bond market collapsed, so did the S&Ls. Prosecutors were looking for a scapegoat and they found one in Milken, who eventually went to jail on charges of insider trading and securities fraud.
Starting in prison, Milken began repositioning his life. A cancer survivor, he became a loud and active champion of medical research. Milken has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research. He is the ultimate philanthropist, well respected in almost every circle and a brilliant and innovative thinker.
And he has a team around him that continues to enforce his reputational reclamation. When I was a journalist, I wrote about Milken and his history. The mention was overwhelmingly positive, focusing on all his good works. When the story went to print, I received an email from members of Milken’s team. Their complaint? That I mentioned his conviction and jail time at all. Milken’s personal history, they argued, is all about his philanthropy and thought leadership. Mentioning his conviction was out of place. It was the kind of aggressive reputation management I didn’t expect – nor will I ever forget.
And then there’s the issue of contrition. This is especially true for executives losing positions because of workplace misconduct or harassment. Despite what you may read on social media, this is a nation that roots for people to rebuild their lives. Being authentically sorry and living a life that is a witness to the fundamental change in direction you’ve undergone is a necessary step in getting people to engage and do business with you again. You have to be truly sorry, and you have to say so in your words and subsequent deeds. Going back to your old ways ensures you never get another chance again.
While much of reputation protection and defense seems reactive, it really isn’t. True, you might not be able to anticipate a specific crisis when it comes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for one. At minimum, you should have an internal team of people in place whose job it is to coordinate strategy for when a reputational crisis hits, in addition to working with your outside communications team to craft a plan. That plan has to take into account everyone who might be affected by a reputational blow: employees, customers, partners, friends and family.
A plan also has to touch every media channel available to you. In a social-media-driven world, that means specific plans for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. That means identifying influencers who can promote your side of the story. You also need to think about how you will utilize digital-video channels like YouTube, broadcast and cable television, and newspapers and blogs. It’s impossible to have an effective reputational-crisis strategy if any single messaging medium is ignored or downplayed.
In the end, there is no office where we give people’s reputations back, but Ray Donovan had it right. His simple, challenging sentence, delivered unambiguously to the media that had smeared him, actually went a long way toward solidifying his reputation as a business and governmental figure wronged by a system looking for scapegoats rather than justice.
Not every reputational crisis can be handled as easily. Yet, any work that takes back control of your own message is worth the time and effort.