I recently attended an Internet conference here in Israel that included a session about online reputation management. One of the speakers in that session, my friend Shira Abel, discussed how to react in a branding crisis. Her advice was intended for companies, but as you’ll see, her main points are just as relevant for personal brands.
Reacting in a branding crisis
Shira’s talk focused on the story of Blake Robbins. Blake was a student at Lower Merrion High School and was disciplined by the school for “improper conduct”. That in itself is not so unusual but what really made the story so newsworthy was how they caught him.
Like every other student at Lower Merrion, Blake had been issued a laptop. What Blake didn’t know was that Lower Merrion had installed software on these laptops that let them remotely activate the webcam so that they could see (spy on?) who was using the machine. Using this capability, the school was able to watch Blake live at home while he broke their rules (supposedly- they say he was doing drugs, his lawyer says he was eating candy).
After being disciplined, Blake sued the school for invading his privacy and the story hit the media, going viral on social media.
The school eventually apologized for not having told parents about the spyware – that was officially intended to catch laptop thieves (17 laptops were actually recovered using the software) – but by that point, people were already selling t-shirts poking fun at the school and Lower Merrion’s reputation was tarnished.
What we can learn from this, according to Shira’s presentation:
He who breaks the story controls the story
Regardless of whether Blake’s actions were worse than Lower Merrion’s error, he was able to tell his version of the story far and wide before Lower Merrion even realized what was going on. By then, he had already set the tone and the school was on the defensive from the start.
If you’ve made a mistake that could ruin your personal brand, come clean as soon as possible. Go public with your guilt before anyone else can expose you. Like Blake, being first to tell your story means that you can explain what really happened with your interests in mind instead of being defamed by someone with their own intentions and a version of events that might not even be true, making you look worse than you should.
Being first to come out also means you can choose the most appropriate time and place for your announcement, so that the people who are most likely to be impacted by it will make the discovery in the least brand-damaging way.
Depending on how bad your mistake was, the way you handle the reaction can not only prevent brand destruction, it might even lead to brand growth.
At the time of this writing, I’m having a problem with a local company that signed me up for their service without my permission. Worse, when I complained to their customer service department, their reaction was to agree with me but to try and sell me on the service so that I would stay with them. Unbelievable! As I told them, “the best thing you could do right now is to solve the problem. That would build my confidence more than anything else because then I would know that if I ever wanted your service and had any subsequent problems (as inevitably happens), I could relax knowing that you would take care of it.”
Similarly, individuals are often best judged by how they react when things go wrong. Outing yourself first shows intellectual honesty and can increase your credibility at a moment when it should otherwise drop. Admitting your error builds trust because more than ever, people will think that you can be counted on.
Shira’s conclusion was that you need to Control the Noise, but I’ll take it one further: if you can control the noise around your mistakes, it will begin to sound like music.