Tiger Woods, BP and you(?): It’s tough digging out of the pit

When you observe the hulking wrecks of once vaunted reputations, like BP and Tiger Woods, it makes it very clear why protecting a reputation is so important. Because rebuilding one once it has been trashed is extremely difficult.

Tiger’s position atop the pedestal of athletic achievement was almost unmatched. Last November 27 it all came crashing down when his Cadillac hit a tree and a golf club hit him. Actually, it started before that but that was the decisive moment. BP’s reputation, sullied as it was by previous events, was still solid as one of the world’s leading companies, until April 20. Even the new Oil Spill Commission working paper which is actually overall quite complimentary of BP’s remarkable efforts to contain the well will do little to improve their reputation which must be near the bottom of corporate reputations right now.

As Tiger nears the one year anniversary of his collapse, it is clear he is on a mission to try and recover at least some of what he has lost. But, given this ABC News report, the effort looks doomed to fail–or least not deliver the hoped for results.

Having discussed strategy recently with an organization facing reputation challenges that are close to pit-like, I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about what can be done when you are in the pit. Part of the problem is that being there may not be your fault, or all your fault. You may be there unjustly–something I talk about a lot in relation to today’s media coverage focused on gaining audiences through exaggerating the problems as well as the nasty social media atmosphere of toxic talk. But, ultimately whether you got to the pit through your own problems or by false accusations it hardly matters. It is, as they say, what it is.

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about when faced with deep and potentially organization-ending reputation challenges:

– Be bold. It is not the time for half measures, for quasi-steps. You need game changers, actions and messages that demonstrate that you get it and are doing something about it.

– Make common cause with your severest critics. Yes, this fits under the be bold category. There are those out there who are unrelenting in their criticism. They are the ones the media will go to for all their juicy quotes and they usually have their own selfish agenda such as getting elected or keeping on the front page. But, go to them. Openly, publicly and say “Help us get this right. We need you.” Look what a dilemma that will cause for them. If their demands prove unreasonable to the observing public, their credibility is diminished. If you substantially meet their objections, and they continue to harp, same thing. You put the onus on them when you agree with them that they are right and you are wrong.

– Be humble. Humility isn’t a virtue we often see displayed in the actions and messages of the high and mighty. To admit that you need help, that you are willing to listen and engage, that you accept the need for thorough change–these are not the expected responses of powerful people or brands.

– Authentic actions. Actions taken for show, for messaging, for positioning will only come back to bite. The more the actions are clear that they issue from the very heart of the leaders and the core of the company the better they will be. But they must be sustainable as the severest critics will be watching intently. They must be real, they must be substantive, they must be sustainable.

-Go direct. For goodness sake, don’t let others carry your change message for you, particularly the media. I’d like to see one of these entities in the pits say “we’re not going to talk to the media anymore because, you know what, we can talk directly to the people who really matter.” Today we have incredible resources to identify and engage directly with the people whose opinion about us matters the most, be are stuck in an old world of thinking that it is only the media who generates opinion. Admittedly, they remain very powerful. But you can go direct to those who matter most and in doing so can and should directly confront when the media, bloggers or politicians are saying things that are clearly unfair or untrue.

– Borrowed credibility–I’ve promoted this idea for some time and frankly, am surprised that it isn’t more widely adopted by those in deep holes. It seems forced on them by circumstances usually and then it is often too late. If your company, your agency, your leadership loses credibility, the game is largely over. It is the most important thing you have. You can’t fight the battle without credibility, it’s like engaging in business with a zero bank balance and no credit. You have to get credibility and if it means borrowing it from someone else, you have to do it. So ask yourself, who has credibility in this space, with this audience? Who will step forward on my behalf and say, hey, what’s going on here is wrong, you’all have to take another look. Sure, it is risky for the person doing that and may be hard to pull off. But, when in the pits, it is one of the few proven strategies and must be attempted at the highest level possible.

If you look at Tiger and BP from this perspective you can evaluate whether or not these would work. Tiger needs someone with immense credibility in the golfing and athletic world to step forward and say, alright all you guys, I’ve talked to him, he understands, he gets it, he’s on the right path, he’s working as hard as he can so get off his back. Arnold? Jack?

BP suffered from the loss of credibility of Tony Hayward and have made great progress with Bob Dudley who has yet to seriously lose the credibility he has. Yet, a longtime insider to BP could not possibly bring the same level of credibility that someone from the outside. I’m not saying that this borrowed credibility needs to assume a specific position with the organization–it should probably be avoided. If you are indeed in the pit, anytime someone gets a card with your logo on it, their credibility flaps away. But being in the position of a citizen advocate, an oversight committee, an ombudsman, an observer and honest reporter of actions can be even more valuable.

If you’re a bit discouraged by this it is probably a good reminder to think about just how tough it is too recover a reputation that is severely damaged. And that is a great reminder to do everything possible to keep it.