The scary thing about your reputation is you don't own it – it's made up of others opinions of you and these are formed through a combination of their confirmation biases, prejudices, experiences as well as what others say about you.
The last one is particularly worrying because if you combine others nefarious motives, fake news and the clever use of social media it can be a vicious combination which can destroy a reputation in hours – even if it is not warranted.
Reputation precedes trust and once a reputation is tarnished it is very difficult to reclaim it or rebuild trust.
But there are ways and I will cover some of these later.
Two examples of reputations in tatters
Our reputations are a complex combination of work, family and friends as well as your ratings, clicks, followers and likes on a variety of social media channels. And it is often here where danger lurks as people like Harvey Weinstein and Justine Sacco found out.
In 2014 before boarding a plane to South Africa from the US, Justine, a senior director of corporate communications consultancy tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!”
Now one could say someone like Justine, in the communications game, would know better and a tweet like this was never going to land well. Despite only having 200 followers, by the time she landed 11 hours later, her tweet was the number one story trending worldwide on Twitter. Not only did she have to contend with tens of thousands of angry tweets but a hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet which was a lightning rod for further vitriol and ridicule.
Justine lost her job and will forever be remembered for those 12 words. Type her name into Google and it brings up almost half a million results.
One tweet is all it took for Justine's reputation to be tarnished for life and this memory is now embedded into Google and Twitter digital fingerprints for generations.
In their excellent book “The Reputation Game” authors David Waller & Rupert Younger say:
Reputation is more valuable than money. What people say about us dramatically affects our ability to achieve what we want, even if what they say is gossip. Our personal reputations are vital to our self-esteem and can make us feel happy, fulfilled and appreciated.
So true and yet I am constantly amazed at what people say and do online with little or no regard for how others may perceive it nor the consequences to their reputation.
Competence and character are the two pillars of reputation
You can't opt out of a reputation.
Even if you opt out of social media your reputation is still moulded by two things – your capability or competence and your character.
Interestingly, people are more inclined to forgive you if you display excellent competence in something even if you mess up a few times, however, they are less inclined to forgive character deficiencies.
If your character reputation takes a hit, no matter how good you are at something, your competence rapidly becomes inconsequential.
Take Harvey Weinstein. Clearly, he was a very competent producer but as awareness of his character deficiencies grew in the light of the numerous appalling sexual harassment cases against him, there were far fewer people who wanted to be associated with him no matter how good a producer he was.
Dan Laufer, Associate Professor of Marketing at Victoria University in New Zealand talks about a principle called crisis contagion i.e. where a crisis somewhere else spreads quickly to another sector brand or country. Personal reputation is much the same, once you have suffered a character reputation hit, reputation contagion takes hold and people no longer want to be associated with you in case they too are tarnished.
In Sacco's case, she didn't have powerful allies with influence to stand up for her. Weinstein did – for a while anyway. But once the evidence mounted they melted away.
When you compare company reputation drivers with personal reputation drivers there are some striking similarities. In our Reputation Reality Report 2019, 254 CEOs and other execs said integrity was the key driver of reputation, other characteristics which appeared in the top six included leadership, transparency, relationships and competence. I've left out the quality of products, which came second, only because in this article we are talking about personal reputation.
How to fix a damaged reputation
Another interesting parallel of the Reputation Reality research as it pertains to personal reputation were the insights of the 254 respondents into the most significant crises of 2018 and the clues these gave as to how to fix a damaged personal reputation. Common failings when dealing effectively with the worst crises of 2018 were:
- Unstructured and poor communication as well as a delay in communicating
- Inauthentic demeanour of those dealing with or speaking about the crisis
- A lack of ownership of the issues
If you apply these to Justine Sacco and Harvey Weinstein there are striking similarities.
Reputation expert Mike Regester says honesty, transparency and a willingness to communicate very quickly are the best qualities to have when dealing with a reputational crisis. These apply as much to a corporation as they do to an individual.
But the best medicine is not to get into this situation in the first place.
Taking a lesson from companies with the best reputation there are two ways to do this:
Have a clear purpose, and have some key principles or values to guide your decision making and be true to yourself in this regard. If something doesn't fit this framework, don't do it or call it out.
After 30 years in the reputation game one thing is certain, the reputational crises I see are typically when purpose or values have been compromised and unfortunately significant reputational pain is not far behind.
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