Salvaging a reputation

President Ronald Reagan’s Labor Secretary, Ray Donovan, and six other defendants were indicted by a Bronx County, NY grand jury for larceny and fraud in 1987. After he and his codefendants were exonerated on all charges, he asked: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

It’s a question many people have asked after they’ve been publicly accused of wrongdoing — how can a damaged reputation be salvaged? The question applies to those who were falsely charged with misbehavior and even those who were guilty of indiscretion and are ready to make amends. These are the key questions:

What do you have to do to repair a tarnished reputation with the public?

You need to preemptively build a brand identity and reputation well before the crisis, according to David Nevins, president of marketing, PR and advertising firm Nevins & Associates. Assemble a network of people who vouch for your credibility and integrity and can help make the point that the charges against you are untrue or that they are at least anomalies. These people are your insurance policy, and they will enable you to weather the storm of innuendo or mockery that may follow an accusation. If you don’t have an identity, others will fill in the blanks for you, often to your detriment.

What steps must you take to regain trust within your company and avoid being seen as a liability?

Rob Weinhold, president of the crisis management firm Fallston Group and author of the recent book The Art of Crisis Leadership, is unequivocal: “Tell your story, truthfully. Silence and false statements have landed countless individuals and organizations in hot water, permanently. Get out in front of the issue and be honest with those looking for answers. It is the most difficult and most effective thing you can do to begin restoring your reputation during a critical time.” To misinform your superiors and have them publicly repeat falsehoods on your behalf may be seen as a personal betrayal that is much worse than the original infraction.

What do you have to do to repair a damaged reputation in situations where you were guilty of a misdeed, even if not a punishable crime?

The first step is acknowledging the scope of the harm you have caused. Your family members may be taunted or shunned. Your actions may have caused financial loss to your company. You may have caused your company’s carefully developed brand to be reduced to a laughingstock and its members to suffer guilt by association. For example, Jeffrey Neely, a senior executive at the General Services Administration (GSA), was found to have inappropriately used government funds for lavish partying and other illicit purposes at a 2010 Las Vegas training conference. Neely was sentenced to jail in 2015, but he was far from the only one to suffer. The heads of GSA at the time had to step down from their positions, despite not being directly involved with the matter. All travel and training within GSA was curtailed, including travel that would have supported effective work; other government agencies were also subject to severe limits on travel and training as part of the bad publicity, leading to animosity toward GSA; and even though Neely’s infractions took place in Las Vegas, GSA employees as far away as Boston faced mocking from neighbors. Such can be the extended fallout of a scandal.

However, Weinhold sees hope: “I believe most people are forgiving as long as you are sincerely remorseful and have a reasonable plan for never making the same mistake twice. Naturally, there are absolutes that may never warrant reputational repair, but more times than not, a reputation is reparable with time and distance.”

How should you act or not act within your organization?

If you have been wrongly accused, you will want to exonerate yourself and rally your network to support you. The following guidelines may help in cases where you have done something wrong:

  • Make a sincere apology and acknowledge all who have been harmed or embarrassed by your actions.
  • Communicate with those whom you or your actions have betrayed. Nevins says there is no substitute for honest look-in-the-eye communication.
  • Get back to work, perhaps with lower visibility (for the short term) and a touch of humility.

On the other hand:

  • Don’t make a half-baked apology such as “I hope no one was offended,” which puts the onus on the over-sensitive people who objected rather than on the actions themselves. Blaming the victims will gain you no support.
  • Don’t walk around with a whiny, “poor me” demeanor, rehashing how you were unfairly defamed. You will annoy coworkers and further keep the problem alive.
  • Don’t adopt a cavalier or dismissive demeanor that implies you are so integral to the organization that you are untouchable. No matter how much money you generate, you may in fact have become a significant liability.

As Weinhold concludes: “It is not the crisis itself, but one’s response to crisis that will ruin or boost reputational equity for years to come”.

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Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in 2016 in Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine (www.smartceo.com).