Reputation management is the practice of identifying a unique brand value and promoting that value intentionally and strategically within a target market. For most of my clients, the goal of their reputation-management work is to increase their market visibility and sales. Alternately, it may be to create a credible brand in a new and expanding market, or even build a new target audience.
Reputation management also includes reputation repair. Most people think that only politicians and celebrities who misstep or get caught in compromising situations need to worry about their reputation, but in reality, everyone from college students to senior executives must mind the way they are perceived and -- when a damaging event does occur -- correct a damaged personal brand.
As a specialist in reputation management and personal branding, I routinely receive inquiries about reputation repair from prospective clients around the world. In recent weeks I’ve received inquiries from:
- A medical doctor accused of sexual assault on a patient. The media took his story and is running it on the daily news
- A business executive who admits to being a social media novice and is being attacked by his more social-savvy competitor who is spreading rumors online about his credibility and track record
- A real estate tycoon outside of the United States who has been accused of impropriety by her colleagues and ousted from the company she founded
While these cases may sound extreme, public humiliation and reputation sabotage can and do happen. And each case and client’s situation is unique. I often work with legal teams, public relations professionals and even boards of directors as I work to address the public perception of high-profile individuals. Regardless of the individual circumstances, for a reputation-repair case here are the steps I take:
1. Assess the damage.
Is this a case of hurt feelings or actual reputation damage? In some cases, my clients get upset over nasty comments posted online, in the media or around their network. Then, when we assess perception in key markets, we find that the comments are viewed as mere gossip and ill will, and have not actually impacted my client’s credibility or business value.
In cases of online reputation attacks that do damage credibility, the measurement and assessment of that damage has to occur in the correct context. If my client initiated a volatile discussion, and online audiences reacted negatively, we must evaluate the cost of that negative feedback in terms of the perception of my client as a provocative thought leader.
2. Calculate your level of control.
Along the way, it's important to understand what we have control over and what we must leave alone. Online, we see many instances of “mob mentality,” where one person sparks fury and others pile on quickly and recklessly. This has been the case for many of my clients, and while the mob may move on to another cause after some time. . . my client’s reputation is left in shambles.
Most crisis-communications professionals advise clients to not engage in online battles -- due to the numerous unknowns and variables. That strategy must be weighed against doing nothing and being seen as complacent and weak. In evaluating a response, we have to look at what we can control: our own actions and behavior, but not the actions of others. If I have the opportunity to share my client’s side of the story, I might choose to do that in a controlled way, via a press conference, a website post, or a letter to an editor, rather than a Facebook post.
3. Think 'big picture.'
If the damage is significant and the options to control and redirect the attention seem slim, evaluating long-term outcomes becomes necessary. For one client, rebuilding his reputation meant starting over in his field. That meant working for agencies below his capabilities and re-earning the trust of key stakeholders in order to rebuild his credibility and articulate his values to those who bought from him.
Without this strategy, he would have been in danger of consistently running into resistance from those who knew of him only from the news.
In another case, a client might choose to relocate his or her family, change careers or change names, depending on the long-term impact of the damage done. These are extreme measures that should be considered only in the most serious cases. In other instances, calculated and deliberate brand re-building may make more sense, personally and professionally.
In the end, reputation repair is not for the faint of heart -- it requires a serious and thoughtful strategy. A reputation is based on perception, behavior and values. While there are online solutions, PR remedies and networking tactics to deploy, the real work of rebuilding trust and credibility starts, and ends, with the personal brand.