10 Ways Leaders Can Protect Their Reputations

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“2010 was remarkable for its series of public gaffes made by CEOs and other leaders that shattered organizations, share price, job tenure, coastlines, and even religious tolerance,” says reputation, crisis, and marketing advisor Davia Temin, CEO of Temin and Company. “In 2011, we can learn from their mistakes in order to protect our own reputations.”

“Of course,” she adds, “one way to never need to protect your reputation is to live a totally invisible and blameless life – but most leaders who wish to accomplish something significant are visible, and do make mistakes. So, culled from 25 years working in the field of reputation and crisis management at the highest levels, and seeing almost every gaffe imaginable, here are my top 10 ways for leaders to protect their reputations – and their legacies – in 2011.”

  1. There is no such thing as privacy anymore. Act as if your every action, every email, every conversation will be observed and judged. From WikiLeaks posting tens of thousands of confidential diplomatic wires to Fabrice Tourre’s midnight emails; from Mark Hurd’s exaggerated expense accounts at HP and Tony Hayward’s exhausted plea that he wanted “his life back” to video cameras positioned on every corner and private acts caught and posted on YouTube, almost everything is discoverable today. So, begin to factor this into your every communication and action. Remember, it might all come back to haunt you, and what you have said or done might not be interpreted generously by your critics!
  2. If you do err, apologize. People’s anger is fueled when an organization, or an individual, minimizes or refuses to acknowledge a mistake. In fact, research has found the corollary is true as well: a heartfelt admission of a mistake can make the public look on you more kindly. Doctors are now told that their chances of being sued over medical errors are far reduced if they “‘fess up,” and apologize to their patients or their patients’ families, instead of stonewalling. One must know how to do this correctly, however. A misstep can be worse than no comment at all.
  3. But, do not let a lie stand, if you can help it. In today’s 25/8 communications world, misconceptions travel and multiply at the speed of electrons, especially if they are fueled by competitors or enemies. In fact, more often than not, the truth means little when pitted against conventional wisdom or whipped up misperception. So, monitor what is being said about you and your organization in real time. And, if lies or misconceptions surface, fight back strategically with the truth whenever you can. Set the record straight tirelessly in person, in print, broadcast, and on the web, if you feel you are being maligned or misinterpreted. This is tough to do, but you can use the world of social media to help you rebut falsehoods, as long as you do this wisely.
  4. That said, you need to know when to be silent, and how to control your impulsive reactions. When you are under scurrilous, personal, “ad hominem” attacks – baseless and full of lies – it can make you crazy. But do not give in to the temptation to lash back publicly right away, or shoot from the hip. It is better to be quiet and deliberate first. Sometimes you cannot defend against the indefensible, and to protest only makes you look guilty. There are times when it is best to go radio silent until an irrational storm dies down. Then, plan your strategy for a comeback.
  5. When you do respond, make sure to get your messaging pitch perfect, and then stick to it…over and over and over again. Don’t be provoked into saying too much, or going off message – in certain climates that is bound to be misinterpreted. Truthfulness and transparency are crucial, but rambling, pointless, “ready, fire, aim” comments or reactions can be dangerous.

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