Reputation management is about controlling or shifting perception in a world where perception is at least nine tenths of reality. Given our cultural obsession with judging others’ choices, often by standards we don’t hold ourselves to, reputation management is one of the fastest growing disciplines in the communications field.
It’s easy to extol the virtues of a good reputation, with its glimmering images of trustworthiness, reliability and integrity. A good reputation is like a fortress built atop a hill, visible for all to see, inspiring respect and admiration. It opens doors, invites alliances and attracts opportunities. But remember, this fortress isn’t impenetrable.
Conversely, a bad reputation is like an unrelenting spaghetti stain, constantly whispering tales of dishonesty, unreliability and even misconduct. But here’s the bitter pill most firms in the business of reputation management fail to share—once you’ve been saddled with a bad reputation, it’s a Herculean task and long road ahead to scrub it clean. And the path to redemption isn’t impervious to new hits that can throw you further off course along the way.
It can take years to build a good reputation and seconds to shatter it. So how are organizations and individuals supposed to take control and manage their reputations?
Recognize the battlefield.
Reputation is the collection of beliefs, perceptions or opinions generally held about someone or something. Therefore, the first step in reputation management is understanding the world in which you operate. You need to know your allies and your motivated adversaries.
While the origins of the word, reputation, date back to 14th century Middle English, in the last decade it’s become embedded in cultural and corporate consciousness. From athletes to nation states, bodies like the United Nations and the Supreme Court to actors and celebrities, small businesses or startups to corporate behemoths, politicians to billionaires—reputation is making headlines everywhere.
However, reputation is often subjective. Digital media, mass communication and instant scandal open reputation up to interpretation, which can be impacted by individual bias and cultural headwinds.
With countless traditional and social media sources, influencer opinions being peddled as fact, and the viral nature of content amplifying both positive and negative perceptions, you must acknowledge you’re fighting on volatile grounds. Everything can change in an instant. Identify the constituencies that matter most to you, as you will never be able to please everyone.
Understand your reputation baseline.
The areas where your reputation is most vulnerable, i.e., your “glass jaw,” should be identified. Ask yourself and your team what keeps them up at night? What corners aren’t we looking around? Whether it’s customer service, product quality, brand activism, political connections, or environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies (or lack thereof), identifying these vulnerabilities will help you focus your defenses.
Having a clear, unbiased picture of your reputation baseline—how you are perceived by all of your customers and core constituencies—is a worthy exercise. Reputation baseline is wholly individualized. The Apples of the world hold a very different place in our hearts and minds than Anheuser-Busch. If you make things children use, you may be held to a very different esteem than missile makers. It’s critical to remember the beliefs of one subset of stakeholders may be polar opposite to another subset that is equally as important to your bottom line.
Do no harm.
If I had to sum up this article into a too long didn’t read (TLDR) post: it’s first do no harm. Easier said than done, but if you start there, your reputation will start and stay in decent shape. However, reputational challenges are often unavoidable, so act proactively to fortify your reputation.
Improve on your weaknesses, but also make sure you’re constantly upholding and showcasing your strengths. Remember, a strong positive reputation can serve as an accelerator to getting you out of the crisis crosshairs and back to business faster and with fewer bumps in the road when the stakes are high.
Maintain constant vigilance.
Monitor both traditional and social media platforms relentlessly. An unfavorable narrative can grow out of a simple tweet or comment, so keeping an eye on what is being said about you is vital. Aggressively vet any partners, influencers, politicians or brands you may be affiliating yourself with. Sometimes working with potentially controversial figures is worth it, but you owe it yourself to understand the risks before agreeing to do so.
Adopt active and clear communication.
When a crisis hits, ensure your responses communicate progress and take into account your internal and external stakeholders. A plainly stated two sentence statement can be more effective than a full-page narrative explanation. Consider your bias for (in)action—if you’ve never been on TV, don’t start during a crisis.
Fight back when necessary.
When faced with criticism, there’s a tendency to always want to apologize and a prevailing belief an apology will solve everything—I have yet to work on a matter where that’s been proven true. However, if the claims being made against you are false or unfair, be prepared to fight back. This doesn’t mean lashing out, rather, it involves providing clear, factual rebuttals to protect your reputation. With companies and brands having owned channels and direct access to key audiences, you can often fight back without needing to use traditional media or external messengers.
Allow for recovery and reflection.
After a crisis, reflect on how it came to be, the actions taken and their outcomes. Learn from the mistakes made, reinforce or rejigger your defenses, and remember reputation management is an ongoing process.
While reputation management is more art than science as there is no one-size-fits-all path to a good reputation, the framework laid out here will help you approach this critical discipline in a strategic, proactive manner. The media can smell fear and uncertainty, and the masses love nothing more than a downfall. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Fortify your reputation, protect it like it’s the last fortress of your dignity. Because in the grand scheme of things, that’s exactly what it is.