Whenever a company experiences crisis, scandal or disaster, it can fire its management team and start all over again. A company can lay responsibility for the crisis on the mighty heads of the fallen. Crisis management can then be structured by the new leadership whose take-charge-of-the-situation attitude and very presence strongly symbolizes that positive change is already taking place. With a change in leadership, the company sends the following message: We are on the mend. Whatever mistakes that have been made in the past are being corrected. The damage has been contained. Mea Culpa.
Managing one person’s brand is a more precarious task than it is to manage the brand of a company. If something goes wrong with your own professional brand, you can’t fire your management team. And more often than not, you do not have the resources to hire legions of PR teams to do damage control for you.
There are some professionals who have such high profile brands that they can finance strategic PR maneuvers that are as sophisticated and as costly as war. Ask Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson or BP CEO Tony Hayward. Tiger Woods took it in the pants for weeks while the tabloids roiled with revelations of one more mistress to add to his growing litany of dalliances with a small army of starlets. When Tiger finally did make his apology-rather dull news when compared to the tantalizing procession of hot babes-it was anti-climactic. Some PR strategist in the Tiger Woods camp had decided the time had come for Tiger to apologize. The buzz and gossip had run its course. It was time for Tiger to get back to the business of playing golf.
BP Oil must ask itself if it could have saved tons of money if it had credible and sincere leadership in place instead of Tony Hayward, who was clearly ill prepared and ill-suited to do the job. Instead of projecting the integrity and the commitment to solve a problem, Tony Hayward came off as Mr. Fancy Pants, a petulant British schoolboy who pretended to be attacked by a bully when he indeed had taken the first swipe at something as small and as sweet as a baby sea turtle.
In all of his stammering, sniveling and dropping of selfish little bon mots, the question remains: Was Tony Hayward ill advised by his swarm of PR advisors? It is doubtful that Tony Hayward could have gotten so much bad advice, not with the millions of dollars being spent to prop him up and to make him look good before the cameras of a global audience. It is entirely plausible that the innate material itself was seriously flawed-even with the best PR coaching in the world, Tony Hayward just wasn’t good enough to rise to an occasion that called for serious leadership.
Every company should assess when hiring a CEO if he has the talent and experience to manage any sort of crisis that could occur. A risk management program should be in place as a tool to evaluate whether a CEO will be able to exhibit the strong leadership that is needed should its brand happen to come under fire. If a company needs to have a risk management plan in place, then so should you. After all if something does go wrong with your professional brand, you can’t hire a new CEO.
Despite the failure of BP’s leadership, its PR strategy was so effective that everyone including the most staunch environmentalists referred to the disaster as an oil spill instead of naming it for the catastrophe that it really was-an outright volcanic gusher of oil. When you think about it, a spill comes from a barrel or a ship and it can be contained, but a gushing leak from the ocean’s floor demands a different type of raison d’être and response altogether. BP’s PR machinery has done a superb job, because here we are, all of us, calling this disaster a spill as if it is the smallest of environmental mishaps, a tiny oil hiccup, a little brown bubble washing out to sea.
A discussion of people who are in need of crisis management and effective PR would not be complete without mentioning the iconic Mel Gibson, to whom the concept of freedom so eloquently featured in his film Braveheart apparently means the ability to bash Gays, Jews and Women with equal hateful fervor. As of late, Mel Gibson has been battling his ex-girlfriend, Russian singer, Oksana Grigorieva, over custody of their 8-month-old baby. She claims he beat her up, which may or may not be true (it’s under police investigation), but it is clear that he called her wildly profane and unspeakable names that have been recorded and since widely circulated around the internet.
Even Mel Gibson is going to have a hard time being Mel Gibson. He has a long history of angry and violent outbursts, coupled with numerous bouts of public drunkenness. Still, no matter how heinous his back trail, he is worth a billion dollars and, whenever he chooses to do so, he can fuel a change in how he is perceived. If an oil volcano can be perceived as a spill, then Mel Gibson stands just as great a chance of turning around his brand. Maybe he will go into rehab and start a foundation that rescues Gulf wildlife from the oil so long as he doesn’t have an anger problem with dolphins.;)
For the rest of us, i.e., people, we are professionals who do not have the luxury to afford to screw-up like Mel Gibson. Most of us are among the working professionals–we can afford to finance our lifestyles, our business ventures, our families, and our savings & retirement, but we do not have the money to finance strategic PR operations that can undo any damage that is done to our professional brands. PR can be expensive and the most expensive form of PR of all is crisis management and damage control. You can’t necessarily Do It Yourself. In fact DIY PR is like pulling a tooth that has already abscessed. It’s time to let the experts get to the roots to contain the infection and cut it out.
So if you don’t have the money or expertise to fix your broken or sullied reputation, you really do not have the luxury of screwing-up. For most of us, we are working professionals, and we are accountants, lawyers, medical doctors, chefs, educators, designers, scientists or IT specialists, and we really don’t have the time or money to get caught up in a juicy scandal.
This isn’t an exercise to give you the top three things that you must do when you have been caught with your pants down. Instead my advice is to do everything in your power to prevent your pants from falling down in the first place. You really can’t afford to make the type of high profile mistakes made by Tiger Woods or Mel Gibson. So don’t be stupid. Don’t ever assume no one is watching or no one is listening. Today, everyone has a camera embedded in their cell phones and a craven desire to take anyone down a notch in order to experience Shadenfreude, which loosely translated from German is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Shadenfreude may be a private feeling, but then there is Open Schadenfreude, which is outright public derision. In the new media world, pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others has become more than a very popular mass movement, Open Shadenfreude is the new Zeitgeist. We just love to make people roll around in the detritus of their own greed, corruption, lust and misguided carnality, but only if they have been caught in the act. We want them to pay the price, not so much for what they did, but we want them to pay the price for getting caught!
So not all of us are stupid. We don’t screw-up on purpose. More often than not, we are only human, and humans make mistakes. Some are honest mistakes, some are not. And then in other instances stuff just happens during the normal course of this messy business called life: a high profile divorce where the bickering goes public, a custody battle over minor children, a bad parting of ways in a job, a relationship or with a business partner. Could be an illness or a death in the family business. Could be alcoholism, drug dependencies or a debilitating illness you don’t want anyone to know about. Maybe Your child is responsible for a crime or has driven while drunk and gotten into a car wreck. Could be domestic violence or an angry feud among siblings over the distribution of assets in their parents estates. Could be getting stalked by an unwanted lover or even a psycho. Or maybe you are a psycho who is doing the stalking! Could be your former business partner or a competitor flaming your business on the internet. Sometime it can be an out-and-scandal -a hand caught in the till, a tawdry sex affair or a murdered spouse, friend or business associate. Every day things happen to us that are the fodder for crisis management and damage control.
So what course of action should you, a professional, take when your brand is under fire? A tarnished professional brand will undoubtedly have a disastrous impact on your job, your business and your reputation. Usually a professional cannot hire a new management team to restructure his or her professional face to the world in the same way as a company. It is up to you to bear the burden of reinventing yourself. And reinvention of your professional brand is not a small task.
Today’s professionals usually lack the knowledge and experience to do damage control. To further compound matters, even the most successful professionals do not have the financial resources to outsource damage control to PR experts who are savvy in the ways of crisis management. The difference between mega watt celebrities and you is a matter of resources and the ability to place the task of repairing their brands in the hands of highly qualified experts who can turn around a brand that has been tarnished or even badly scarred by scandal. As professionals we must be prepared for the inevitable-sooner or later our professional brand will come under fire.
And while you can’t hire a PR expert to do your damage control, here is some sound, practical advice. Three principles of crisis management for the professional:
1. Have a solid professional brand. Don’t wait until there is a crisis in your life. You must build awareness for who you are and what you do to build your business and to build credibility. Make certain you are very clear about your professional brand and the message you are sending to the world in all of your communication including emails, social media posts, news articles, memos, and in both public and in private conversations. Make sure your brand is solid and that you are perceived as having integrity. If this is not the case, then you need to work on solidifying your brand long before disaster is looming. There is no better time than now to assess who you are as a professional and how to position yourself within your community-of- interest, which is composed of just about everyone you already know. This way if people know who you are and know what you stand for, then, should a crisis occur, they are much more likely to listen to your side of the story. Most important of all, people must build brand equity in their own names and reputations so if a crisis should occur, then you have a reserve bank account-call it goodwill-to draw upon.
2. Apologize. If you’ve done something wrong, then apologize. For a long time, lawyers would counsel their clients, particularly when liability was at issue, not to apologize and not to tell what really happened. Recent studies have found outcomes to the contrary and that many egregious wrongdoers can find successful outcomes when they tell the truth. Findings indicate even medical doctors who make mistakes that result in malpractice suits have a better outcome if they apologize to their patients. An apology-without giving excuses or blaming someone else- results in less rancor and has an outcome of less money having to be paid out in a settlement. By apologizing, you show respect to another human being who has been harmed. If you deny the wrongdoing and make excuses, the victim never has the opportunity to feel as if he is being treated fairly and with dignity and respect. Apologize and explain what went wrong, what you have done to fix it, and why it will never happen this same way again.
3. Keep your apology alive. Make your apology active and ongoing. After the egregious misconduct, you must seek ways that are high profile, visible enough to show how you are sorry for what has happened and everyone can see how you are fixing it. Your redeeming activities should fit the crime. If you’ve been caught drinking and driving, then join MADD. If you’ve been caught in a nasty custody battle, then join a support group that helps battered kids who are living on the street. Whatever you choose to do, make certain that your community-of-interest i.e., colleagues, peers and friends know of your new affiliations. Be seen doing the right thing to make up for what you did wrong. You should show this pattern of redemption for as long as it takes to turn around the negative fallout from your own private disaster. Use Social Media in a disciplined way by joining or supporting groups that show clear evidence of your turn around from your wrongdoing or your crisis. Be certain that the group or movement shows integrity and is truly helping to make the world a better place. Most important, consistently show “redeeming” behavior in all of your future conduct.
In terms of keeping the fire doused, always remember, one screw-up is okay, twice you’re finished. You’re not Mel Gibson and you don’t have a billion dollars. Some of us may be able to survive and flourish beyond one scandal, so long as it is not too bad, but rarely can we survive two major scandals, especially if the theme behind the scandal is an ongoing pattern of bad behaving, i.e., you might be forgiven for drinking and driving once, but not twice. Twice and you’re finished as a person and a professional.
Other recent examples of professional brands gone wrong include the public marital infidelities of Al Gore and John Edwards. Again, these men are more than business professionals, they are high profile public figures who have spectacular financial resources available to do damage control. Keep in mind that if your egregious misconduct is one love affair, it is a lot easier to do damage control. Ultimately, the world admires and forgives people who give up their worldly status, fortunes, and political ambitions because they have finally found lasting true love. The whole world loves a lover.
I am not here to make moral assessments as to what is right and wrong or to establish the baseline for some of life’s most complicated ethical issues. Morality, religion, ethics can all be used as tools by savvy PR professionals to manipulate hearts, minds and purse strings. I do not want to get complex enough to discuss what is right or wrong, or situational ethics such as what is right in one situation and what is not in another.
If you have a strong brand and you don’t act stupid, then you may never find your professional brand tarnished or under fire. Realistically though, we are all human, and we do make mistakes. Unless you are a sociopath, in your private moments you must know in your heart of the times that you have screwed-up. You can express gratitude if you have learned your lesson and you have never repeated the mistake. But you can be exceptionally grateful if no one else has ever learned of your screw-up or, worse yet, posted it all over the internet.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is: if you make a mistake, then apologize, show that you learned from the mistake and let your actions tell the world that you will not repeat the same mistake twice. Always keep in mind that you, the professional, cannot do PR like a company or a mega-rich celebrity, but you can conduct beautifully orchestrated damage control if you have, all along, maintained a strong brand. If you have a strong brand you will be able to deliver a strong apology, which will be well received and you will appear to be credible. A strong brand will live beyond a mishap, a scandal or a disaster, and over time recover, rebound and even flourish. After all, as professionals, we are still people, we are human, we do make mistakes and we do recover from these mistakes. Ultimately, in the end, how well you respond to your own mistake is more important and more telling about your brand and your character than the mistake itself.