My job as an online reputation manager has brought me face to face with many high and low profile individuals living some of the most difficult, testing and trying times of their lives as they found themselves in the eye of the storm in reputation crises that threatened to derail their careers. When thousands of people on the Internet and the social media (and eventually, if the trend is not contained, the traditional media as well) are running you down because of your perceived incompetence, callousness, dishonesty or lack of character, the world all of a sudden becomes a very unwelcoming place to find yourself in. Confusion and frantic and often misguided attempts to bring to a halt the torrent of criticism and abuse tend to boomerang and compound the problem and many you considered a friend may be manoeveuring behind your back to see you go.
This nightmare scenario I have just described is almost invariably reproduced in communication and reputation crises where scapegoating is the norm and not the exception. In fact, most reputation crises follow a well-researched and established sequence of events that could be summarized as follows:
1) The crisis breaks out. This is the onset of the crisis, potentially provoked by the likes of fill-considered or inappropiate comments, sexual scandals, legal battles, smears, etc. and/or indeed lack of action when it was deemed necessary in the eyes of the community
2) The person goes through a ‘tunnel of fire‘: this is how we refer to the crunch time of the crisis where negative comments, attacks, invective and threats proliferate and reach their peak as the crisis goes viral
3) The person, the organization or both go though the subsequent vilification process where they become the bogeyman and magnet for negativity and their character and actions are suddenly put in question even by hitherto friendly or neutral sources
4) The reaction phase follows where a more or less felicitous response is enacted by either:
a) apologizing and owning up to their mistake or
b) refusing to budge and energetically defending their actions and position
5) Especially when option a) is chosen and the individual eventually owns up to their failings (Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky affair or Tiger Woods are suitable examples here), the crisis ends with either a metaphorical ‘sacrifice‘ in the form of stepping down, resignation, redundancy or being driven out of the public favor and into obscurity; or alternatively the redemption of the accused party through a more or less carefully crafted strategy of public humiliation and admission of guilt followed by a transformed public identity and persona that reflects that ‘lessons have been learnt’.
6) When neither the sacrifice the public demands or a redemptive process of restitution take place, the person or organization run the risk of demonization, a process that (though reversible) may cast a negative spin on its character, actions and public consideration for many years with the subsequent erosion of their reputation and public relations.
Redemption remains therefore the strategy of choice for many personal brands in the whirlwind of a make-or-break crisis and under tremendous peer and (social) media pressure. Five actions that can help greatly defuse ‘vilification’ and advance your restoration in the public eye are:
– Issue a highly personal (as opposed to standardized) public apology and accompany it when possible with visual elements (video and photography) that reinforce and drive through your message
– If you are in pain and suffering over what happened, for once do not live it in silence and communicate it to others. Remain dignified throughout, but do not be afraid to share your vulnerability in relation to the facts in question
– Display the actions you have taken to put things right for yourself and others: restitution offered to injured parties, the beginning of therapy to deal with issues, etc.
– Welcome a show of support from relatives, friends and peers who can vouch for your character while in no way justifying the misdeeds that brought you to your current predicament
– Revamp your personal brand as the new ‘post-crisis’ you continue with the job at hand and you muster sympathy, empathy and trust and your credibility levels are restored
The redemption of a personal brand is not always possible, but if it is to happen at all the recommendations above distil the essence of what successful redemptions have in common. One last piece of advice: when everything seems to be running smoothly keep your ego under check and do not put on a permanent show of strength. A touch of genuine vulnerability here and there will one day work in your favor when you have to ask your community for a second chance. And that’s all you’ll find yourself desperately needing one day.
Oscar Del Santo is a lecturer, consultant, key speaker, blogger and populariser of online reputation and inbound marketing in Spain. He has been extensively featured in the Spanish and Latin American media and is included in the ‘Top Social Media Influencers’ and ‘Best Marketing Tweeters in Spanish’ lists @OscarDS. He is the author of ‘Reputacion Online para Tod@s’ and the co-author of ‘Marketing de Atraccion 2.0’.