What advice to give those involved in reputation wrecks?

Yesterday I was interviewed by NPR for a program airing this weekend about PR and reputation problems caused by racism. It’s always good for someone who helps others prepare for media interviews to do a real one themselves to bring some lessons home. I wasn’t too happy with the interview despite having prepared by thinking through key messages.

In case you catch the story, and some of what I said is included, here is how I intended to answer the question.

1. It’s always about credibility.

While there isn’t a denial, or he said/she said in this case, people are still looking at Paula closely to see if she is to be believed. No doubt trust and respect for at least some has been shaken by revelation of her past attitudes and behavior. Now they are looking to see if she is telling the truth and can rebuild trust. Sincerity is everything. Sadly, I think Paula is very much lacking in this right now with bungled apology, standing up the Today Show, a rocky performance there, and as far as I know, no real action taken–just words. Sincerity and credibility, like all things trust related, are judged more by actions than words.

2. Admit wrong and fix it.

Speed is essential in responding to such a situation. Speedy response often requires identifying the risks in advance and preparing to respond. Deen and company did not do that although the risks following the deposition should have been very obvious. Yes, she admitted wrong, in goofy sorts of ways, but sincerity demands serious action. As we have seen over and over again, the public is at once highly sensitive to character flaws–particularly where dishonesty and lack of sincerity are involved–but also very forgiving when they perceive genuine remorse and commitment to change.

3. Direct contact with key stakeholders.

The news is filled with stories of corporate sponsors abandoning Deen. This could have been anticipated. In this case, direct communication that included an apology and a clear plan of action to address the wrong may not have been enough. Brands are very sensitive to negative press and reputation wrecks (see next point). However, the overall lesson is that the most important people to communicate with in a crisis are those whose opinion about you matters most for your future. If you let the media control the storyline, the results are predictable. Managing the firestorm means engaging with these important people at earliest possible opportunity, finding out from them what they see as needed or expected and responding quickly with firm action.

4. Understand the climate.

This is the only issue that I discussed with the reporter. The  the cultural climate determines the nature and degree of reputation crises in many respects. We see it everyday (eg. Chick-fil-A CEO was back in news today for posting a “sad day” tweet about Supreme Court decision re gay marriage). We have a high level of political correctness (determined largely by major media positions on social/political issues), and also a great deal of pluralism or diversity. Some issues demonstrate deep divisions: homosexuality, abortion, gun control, energy policy, etc. On some issues there seems to be a strong social consensus: child abuse, porn, molestation, sexism, racism–and gay rights issues are quickly moving into this realm). The impact on reputation is determined in part by where the issue fits on the continuum of consensus vs. division. But it also depends on the passion and social engagement of those on one side or the other of the issue. So the seriousness of the reputation wreck and strategies for recovery are based on an analysis of the climate as well as how the story has been covered so far.

5. It’s about character.

Ultimately, reputation is about perceived character. For companies and organizations, its about how the public perceives the character and integrity of the leaders. For celebrities, its about their perceived character. Paula Deen has a significant problem because the deposition revealed a significant gap in who people perceived she was vs. who she was revealed to be through the deposition. If she has a chance of recovery it will be based on how people perceive her character in dealing with this gap. Understanding this focus on character is critical to reputation crisis prevention, as we discussed on The Crisis Show the other day. Those responsible for organization reputation have to take very seriously the character and integrity of those who represent and make decisions for the organization.

So, can Paula recover?

Seems she’s taken a major step in retaining Judy Smith, a well-known reputation “fixer” who is also African-American. At the same time, hiring someone with such profile in working with major reputation problems (Marion Barry, Michael Vick and so on), leads one to question sincerity of anything coming out now. I don’t think Deen’s situation is nearly as bleak as a Lance Armstrong (whose character problems seem so deeply embedded and the gap between perception and reality so stark). Some would say Tiger’s reputation has recovered. While Forbes proclaims Nike’s sales increase a success for Nike hanging with Tiger and demonstration of his reputation recovery, I would say every tournament in which his petulance, impatience and self-absorption are so obvious is judged in light of his past behavior. If Paula does recover, it will be like Tiger’s I suspect. Never again will she enjoy the level of adulation she once did, nor the level of sponsorship.

One last note–what to make of Paula’s surging book sales? Does this call into question this analysis of her reputation problems? I don’t think so. It’s a reminder of that old truism dating back to early days of publicity: “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.” She is enjoying a surge of awareness–perhaps curiousity–coming out of all the news coverage and social media chit chat. Long term, its reputation that matters, not mere publicity.