Protecting a Reputation and the Walk to Redemption

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

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.

Fake Video: Newest Reputation Challenge

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Reputation managers have had to deal with fake news, but soon they also may have to contend with fake videos.

New technology makes it possible to doctor a video of someone speaking and literally put words into their mouth. The results can be quite convincing and put the speaker on the defensive for something he or she never said.

The proof of concept is the Synthesizing Obama project at the University of Washington. Researchers took video of the former President and edited audio from numerous speeches, which they lip-synched to give his speech a totally opposite meaning. Researchers at Stanford are experimenting with technology to modify facial expressions to make fake videos even more convincing. Adobe has software that can alter audio add totally new and fake phrases, mimicking a speaker’s voice.

With tools like that, mischief can’t be far behind.

Combine a malicious tool with the instantaneous combustion of social media and you have a reputation crisis on steroids created on a laptop in someone’s dank basement.

William Comcowich, who leads Glean.info that provides customized media monitoring, encourages companies, PR firms and the news media to “develop ways to detect altered videos.” Easier said than done.

Whitewashing away fake videos isn’t really possible, and would be foolish to try. (The concept of trying to bury bad news online with a spate of good news stories doesn’t have much merit to begin with.)

Short of some technological Sherlock Holmes or a forensic army, the best defense may be vigilance and documenting with video key speeches by principals. If you find a video of the boss on social media that doesn’t sound quite right, the best way to fight back is to produce a raw video of the actual speech, with verification that it is complete and unedited.

Comcowich notes that it is natural for people to trust what they see. However, that trust was undermined when people realized how images can be manipulated with tools such as Photoshop. That may eventually happen to video, but meanwhile fake videos can destroy a reputation and mischaracterize what actually happens at an event.

Think how the violence last weekend in Charlottesville might be reshaped in the hands of a creative video editor with a story to spin. Think how the alternative narrative of the tiki torch march was undone by embedded journalist Elle Reeve who had raw footage from the beginning to the end.

Dismissing fake videos are too difficult to make is burying your head in the sand. Just as sophisticated production boards have been made to fit on laptop keyboards, the tools to create videos will be in the hands of mischief makers sooner than you think. It’s not too soon to modify a crisis plan to account for
the advent of fake videos.


Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.