Drawing the moral line on reputation management (Column)

There are literally hundreds of case studies written on crises handling when it comes to managing public perception of corporate reputations. Some of the world’s most famous brand recoveries are the Tylenol cyanide-laced capsule scandal, Perrier benzene contamination, Toyota’s exploding air bags, Maple Leaf Food’s Listeriosis outbreak and the Joe Fresh factory catastrophe in Bangladesh. The list goes on. Currently, the world is watching very closely as Volkswagen begins its long climb back to restoring consumer confidence and shareholder value over its emission scandal. I think they will regain the public’s trust, it’s just going to be a grueling grind of doing things right all the time, without exception.

While corporations have been able to restore their brands even after lying to the public, hurting human lives or damaging the environment, we seem able to forgive and forget the damage committed. Let’s face it, a good crisis strategy — saying “sorry,” fixing the problem and paying punitive damages — often gives the public enough reason to forgive. And we do.

In contrast, it’s just not that easy when it comes to public figures and celebrities who have fallen from grace. Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi and Mel Gibson have been inducted in the persona non grata hall of fame. Even Gibson, who made a brief appearance at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, can never live down his very public anti Semitic statements made in 2006. He wants to move on, but the public has other ideas. Publicists, managers and personal handlers have a much bigger problem than managing a corporate brand in crisis. Celebrities who cross the moral code of what society can bear are dealt a death blow to their career.

We seem to have drawn the proverbial line in the sand when it comes to where and when we can forgive.

Dump a bunch of oil in the water, killing the environment along with tons of wildlife and costing millions can be forgiven. Abuse a woman and, well, there’s no playbook on the comeback for that.

Hit, abuse, or take away a woman’s freewill is a career ender. And for that matter, so is being a sadistic, misogynist, racist, bigot — society has zero tolerance for this behaviour. And, digging your way out of a personal brand crisis is much harder than you think.

On the flip side, cheating husbands get a second kick at their career. Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Duchovny and even Tiger Woods have all restored their respective personal brands (if only Woods could restore his game, that would be something). We seem to forgive the pleasures of the flesh when husbands stray. Bill Clinton is living proof of that.

For communications experts like myself it’s a complicated issue when we are faced with clients who have acted poorly, irresponsibly or who are facing a crisis even when not created by them. We take emotion out of our planning and deal with the situation. Our job is to restore a brand’s reputation, conduct ourselves with the utmost integrity, maintain or restore trust, and get the public’s acceptance back.

For celebrities and public figures that have crossed what we consider beyond what our moral barometer can tolerate, there is just no crisis manual written yet for that fix.

And I don’t ever plan to write one.

Julie Rusciolelli is the president of Maverick


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