Repairing a Damaged Reputation
Rehabilitating a damaged public image. This is one of the most popular topics that I am asked to address. From time to time, whenever controversy arises (and that seems to be more frequently, doesn't it!) the question is presented: how does one rehabilitate or repair a damaged image? How can someone rebuild his or her reputation? Given such popularity, I am reposting this article from last year with the hope that you'll again find it useful.
It takes time to rehabilitate one's image: such a matter does not lend itself to a quick fix.
Many people hope that if they say the right thing at the critical moment all will be made good. That's just not how the world works.
We, as human beings, form perceptions about other humans over time. This is the basis of reputation. If a person has made a major blunder, it equates to a big, negative hit against his or her reputation. This cannot be overcome with one press conference. No, the perfect statement at the perfect time will not wipe the slate clean. Instead, those in the audience will watch and observe, most likely in a cautious manner at first. Some will be inclined to forgive; others may become embittered permanently toward the person who made the major mistake. Over time, most people in the audience will adjust their assessments of the person in question.
So if the perfect words will not do the trick, what can rebuild a tarnished reputation? One word: actions.
As we've all heard, actions speak louder than words. Once a person has made the gargantuan gaffe, the best thing he or she can do is to consistently do good and do right. According to the laws of communication theory, 93% of the information that human beings process and learn from is related to non-verbal signals or cues. By contrast, words account for only 7% of that which we process and upon which we form perceptions. With this fact in mind, it is easy to see why actions are so much more important than words in regard to mending one's reputation.
With the clear understanding that (1) rehabilitating a reputation takes time and that (2) actions speak louder than words, let's shift the focus toward the public relations strategy. What are the right tactics to use in a situation where a person has made a career-threatening mistake?
I would advise my clients and anyone else to adhere to the following ABC principles:
A - Apologize. Admit your mistake and ask for forgiveness. Demonstrate that you have a contrite heart. This is done by speaking in a humble manner and expressing remorse.
B - Be genuine. Show some emotion. No one will forgive an over-rehearsed, stiff emotionless robot. Speak from the heart and use natural, appropriate hand gestures and other non-verbals. Obviously, we don't want to see a blubbering basket case, but genuineness and emotion can be very helpful.
C - Compassion. Show compassion. The root of the word "passion" is "suffer." To show compassion is to demonstrate that you are suffering with the person (or parties) who were affected. The audience will identify with compassion and respond favorably to it. Perhaps no one understood this better than Bill Clinton who repeatedly emphasized: "I feel your pain."
Remember that non-verbal communication is crucial. People in the audience are watching, more than listening. Therefore, the speaker's emphasis should be placed upon apologizing, being genuine and demonstrating compassion. It may be acceptable to speak briefly about one's past track record (which may have been glowing and heroic) but only in the context of remarks about future plans to atone for this incident. Specifically, the speaker may want to briefly discuss specific plans about rehabilitating himself, through counseling, clergy, medical care, training or community service, to demonstrate that he is focused on atoning for his actions and preventing future blunders.
All in all, the majority of the positive impact, or image rehabilitation, will come in the weeks and months that follow the initial episode. Sorry ... there simply is no quick fix.
Accordingly, we would work with our client to establish an ambitious, pro-active outreach plan to lead them through this subsequent phase. Ultimately, the key to successfully rehabilitating a reputation is consistently repeating good deeds, rightful and helpful acts, over an extended period, in a manner that reestablishes trust.