Save the Lipstick

Making Moammar Gadhafi look good? Forget the lipstick.What do you do if Moammar Gadhafi calls asking for help to spruce up his image? Unless you are prepared to tell him to his face to give up being a dictator, you should decline the opportunity.

Monitor Group, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, finds itself in the embarrassing situation of explaining why it accepted the assignment of a Gadhafi makeover.

The truth is too many public relations firms sign up for work that demands extreme candor without ever intending to be candid with their client. That's unfortunate and probably unprofessional.

Assisting an organization or individual in managing their reputation requires an accurate assessment of public perceptions and a realistic set of the client's vulnerabilities.

Monitor Group should have recognized a thaw in U.S.-Libyan foreign relations wouldn't translate into collective amnesia. Gadhafi's well-earned reputation as a dictator and supporter of terrorists was the problem it needed to tackle. Gadhafi didn't need an image makeover; he needed to make profound changes in the way he conducted himself.

That is typically the case for organizations and individuals that find themselves portrayed in a bad public light. You can try to push stories about how they are misunderstood victims, or you can deal straight on with the reasons they are standing in a pool of public disrespect.

Reputation management work is not comfortable for clients or PR practitioners. It shouldn't be. Many times, the relevant subject matter has been shoved under a rug for years, in the hope it will be forgotten. However, dirt has a bad habit of resurfacing in the most awkward moments. So it's better to air out problems in the relative safety of conversations with your PR counselors. Yes, that can mean awkward, tense conversations. But your reputation is worth the anguish.

Influencing an image isn't the same as managing a reputation. If you want to preserve a good reputation it takes guts. It can mean facing the music, apologizing and changing. Redemption and public respect are earned, not spun.

No matter how tempting a big wad of cash is, PR professionals should be wary of client engagements to put makeup on a dictator – or anyone else who doesn't like the heat, but won't douse the fire. As the saying goes, you can't put lipstick on a pig.