Most people concerned about their reputation don’t follow Taylor Swift’s example and write songs with titles like “I Did Something Bad.” Instead, most people try to figure out how to scrub social media sites and influence Google searches.
Whitewashing an online reputation has both physical and ethical limitations. Addressing a reputational issue head-on has a more durable and dependable life cycle. You are basically telling your own story, as Ms. Swift has done on her latest studio album titled, appropriately, “Reputation.”
Facing a rumor, allegation or documented exposé may be uncomfortable, but could be more rewarding than wishing the comments and innuendos would go away, which they won’t, even under an online pile of “good” news. A healthier and more reputation-friendly approach is to take charge of your own story.
This is a case of when a bold offense is the best defense. You can let a story drip you to death through court filings or information leaks. Or you can disrupt your opposition’s narrative with proactive communication.
Going on offense doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Bold offense is a strategic, not impulsive move that requires careful coordination with legal, financial or other key advisers. You may have to admit where you were wrong, insensitive, negligent or slow to act.
Owning your mistake could be a small price to pay to earn the chance to tell your side of the story, earn some credibility and preserve a reputation. The admissions you make may be ones that you will make sooner or later in court or in a regulatory settlement. Waiting does little for your credibility and may further tarnish your reputation.
Telling your story doesn’t get you off the hook. But it will affect the arc of the conversation. You may introduce new facts or perspectives. Your admission may disarm critics. You may recommend something that takes the wind out of the sails of opponents. What’s important is that you make the conversation change course.
Reputation management isn’t a science or, for that matter, an art. Reputation management involves a candid analysis of a situation and identifying a proactive response. In an increasingly cynical and polarized world, protecting your reputation may take a really bold move.
Predictable or expected responses may tone down chirping, but not stop it. Hiding behind old, stale arguments – however justified those arguments may be – just perpetuates the critical chirping you want to escape. Ignoring the chirping is like throwing your hands up in the air. Trying to drown it out with louder chirping is like throwing a Hail Mary pass.
Protecting your reputation takes more than wearing a bullet-proof vest or trying to wave a wand to make bad news go poof. It usually requires a savvy, bold move that seizes the narrative from critics or pundits. Or as Ms. Swift expressed it in her song:
They never see it comin'
What I do next
This is how the world works
Reputations are precious, vulnerable things. People judge, but they also forgive. What they are less likely to do is forget a cover-up or a snow job.
When you do something bad, look for a path to redemption, not a secret passageway. Walking the path of redemption could be the best exercise for your reputation.