Can corporate communicators learn from individuals fighting to protect personal reputation?
There was a time, not that long ago, when many high profile individuals lived by the mantra of Never Complain, Never Explain. What this meant in practise was that if a story broke in the media, or if an ex-employee or associate spilled the beans on an aspect of your private life, you simply would not engage in the story in any way. By never engaging (and never explaining) the story could never be fully corroborated so eventually would die.
It’s an approach that has served our Queen, and other members of the Royal Family well for many decades. Indeed, Kate Moss is another high profile person who until very recently, did exactly the same. But in today’s multi-media world, what if the claims made against you are heinous, hurtful, and damaging to your reputation; what then should you do? Leave those claims to be amplified by the army of Internet trolls just waiting to spread that bad news and further blacken your name? Or come out fighting?
Two people who recently chose the latter are Camila Batmanghelidjh (the founder and former CEO of Kids Company) and Paula Ratcliffe (MBE, long distance runner and holder of the world record in the women’s marathon).
When Camila Batmanghelidjh was forced to resign as CEO of Kids Company, the tabloid press appeared to go on the rampage, seeking to dig up as much dirt as they could on Camila and Kids Company. They didn’t find much: an allegation that teenagers had smoked pot at one of the centres and another that a 24-year-old member of staff had used his position to coerce a 19 year old woman in to having sex with him. Legal and no claim of force. So, something of a non-story? Perhaps, but what really finished off Kids Company (according to Camila) was when Scotland Yard started investigating claims of child abuse linked to the charity. This mêlée of accusations created a maelstrom of negativity leading to a private donor withdrawing funding, ultimately forcing Kids Company to close its doors for the last time on 5th August this year. What happened next was interesting. Camila Batmanghelidjh immediately came out fighting. She was angry and she wanted to be heard. I watched her on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on the morning following the closure, then on the Channel 4 news and finally on BBC2’s Newsnight programme. She made a number of claims against the government and certain civil servants briefing against her and Kids Company and at first sounded like a crazed conspiracy theorist. But as the day went on she kept with her story, fought courageously through interviews with some of TV’s toughest journalists, and at the end, started to sound credible. This was a woman fighting for her reputation like she was fighting for her very survival. And she’d won the first battle: she’s got her side of events out there and did it with confidence and completely on her own terms. If nothing else she was – to use an oft-used word – authentic.
The other example is that of Paula Ratcliffe – our marathon world record holder, MBE and a woman verging on National Treasure status – when she was implicated as a ‘doper’ in comments made by Jesse Norman, Chair of a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee enquiry in to doping in sport.
Although Jesse Norman didn’t mention Paula by name, his choice of words meant it could not have been any one but Paula Ratcliffe he was referring to when he suggested there were top GB athletes with suspicious blood results. In doing so, he effectively accused Paula Ratcliffe of doping.
The global sporting world has been rocked by doping allegations. And since Lance Armstrong – another high profile athlete previously with an almost hero status – admitted his guilt, any benefit of the doubt they previously had has been eroded to such a degree that anyone accused of doping is now assumed guilty. This is the backdrop against which Paula Ratcliffe had to consider her next move after Jesse Norman’s comments.
What Paula did was come out fighting. She acted quickly and decisively and provided an emotional but none the less strong rebuttal to the claims. And she went a step further in also defending the rights of all athletes to privacy. The very next day she was on the front page of nearly every UK daily newspaper. She had succeeded – as Camila had – in getting her version of events across and she’d done it with courage and conviction. What struck me about the approach taken by both Camila and Paula, was their complete and utter self-belief; that the allegations made against them were totally without merit; that they would rather put themselves in the firing line and fight for their reputations rather than allow the story to play out or even to go a step further and get lawyers involved.
Both these individual stories seem to have gone away for now, and only time will tell if Camila and Paula will emerge with their reputations intact. But is the ‘coming out fighting’ approach suitable for corporations? And what can the corporate world learn from this approach?
There are three key things to ensure before you come out fighting:
That you are genuinely defending the truth
This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people have come out to defend a lie. Lance Armstrong is a case in point but so is Hillary Clinton. The latter has risked having her entire political career derailed after she lied about having classified emails on her private email account. And what about Toyota? Whilst the CEO may not have lied, he simply refused to believe that Toyota cars could have such a fault that would put lives at risk. Some would argue that his dithering cost lives.
Today, the way data and information is stored and shared means that the truth will just about always come out ready to bite you on the back side if you’ve lied. If you’re wrong, the only thing to do is admit it, apologise, learn from it and move on. Never lie. You’ll get found out and then at best look silly, at worst have your entire reputation destroyed. Look at Volkswagen today. As I write this blog 19% (or $13billion) has been wiped off the value of VW Group since it was found to have lied about the emissions of its diesel cars.
You have the stomach to fight
When you come out fighting you’re up against your accusers, the media and the general public. You’re going to take a lot of hits whilst you fight your corner. You have to have the strength of character and personal conviction to survive such an ordeal. As a corporation, you should never put your CEO in front of a camera unless they are ready for battle and fully prepared to defend your truth with courage and conviction. Not everyone can do this. Tony Haywood ex-CEO of BP, speaking during the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, simply didn’t look confident or adequately prepared enough to face such a hostile media. It proved to be his undoing. Another example is that of Nick Buckles the ex-CEO of G4S – credited previously with presiding over a period of impressive growth – he buckled under pressure at a select committee enquiry in to the Olympics security fiasco. After his weak and lack-lustre performance, the Guardian the next day reported that he “came across as someone who couldn’t organise a tea party at Twinings” … he resigned not long after.
And people give a damn!
If we’ve learned anything from the explosion in communications, technology and media; it’s that the truth will out: lies are easily exposed and news turns over very quickly. People need to care about you/your company or the story you’re involved with, If they don’t then they’re not going to bother listening and you’d do better to just let it quietly fizzle out.
In summary, individuals who are successful in defending their reputations are those who come from a position of truth, have the strength and courage of their convictions, and are people we care about. Applied to corporations this means building a reservoir of goodwill to start with – i.e. actively building a strong reputation so that people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt should you ever face a crisis. In addition, for a company to act from a position of truth – founded on a clear core purpose – means having a relevant and defined corporate brand. Finally, ensuring that everyone in the business – from the CEO through to the intern – understands how the company’s core purpose and brand relates to their own personal behaviour.
Then you’ll be ready for the fight.
Spencer Fox is a brand and reputation consultant and has advised companies such as AstraZeneca, ITV, L’Oréal and Tesco. He is a founding partner of Tovera Consulting – a brand and reputation research, measurement and advice company that helps companies build both strong brands and reputations.