4 Things You Shouldn’t Do During a Reputation Management Campaign
Most people who specialize in reputation management eventually hear about the Streisand Effect.
In 2003, actress Barbara Streisand – known for her deep sense of privacy – sought to suppress photos of her home on the Internet. People on the Internet reacted angrily against takedown notices and began sharing the photos on many Websites.
Put succinctly, the Streisand Effect is where you achieve the exact opposite of your desired results with an information management campaign. Streisand was not attempting to manage her reputation.
She was merely trying to protect her privacy. Had she asked for privacy 15 years later, people might have been more sympathetic.
Reputation management campaigns sometimes backfire badly. When notable people who have been accused of wrongdoing or even charged with crimes attempt to hide the facts from the public, their efforts may be detected.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Reputation marketing isn’t just about improving the public image of people or organizations who have incurred the public’s wrath.
Although anyone who studies the history of public relations and reputation management will find stories of outrage going back centuries, modern reputation marketing began with two significant events.
First was the launch of the 19th century magazine The Furrow by the John Deere Company.
Credited with launching the field of content marketing, the magazine also launched the field of modern reputation marketing. By publishing content that created goodwill among American farmers, the John Deere Company quickly rose to the pinnacle of American manufacturing in terms of public goodwill.
This was a remarkable achievement given the conflicts between labor and business owners that spread throughout the industrialized world.
The John Deere Company had its struggles with labor unions in the mid-20th century, but its long-established reputation as one of America’s top companies remained generally untarnished even as other large industrial companies were drawn into the news coverage over conflicts between big labor and big industry.
The second event that triggered modern reputation marketing was the 1906 Pennsylvania Railroad accident.
Ivy Lee, the co-founder of the Parker and Lee public relations agency, issued the first press release in 1906 when he decided to get ahead of the press by telling the railroad’s side of the story. The modern publicity and public relations model was born.
Reputation marketing is employed in many industries and its effects are profound. Product launches and movie productions are governed by the vaguely defined rules of reputation marketing. Everything the public sees is carefully vetted and shaped by marketers, publicists, advertisers, and sometimes even the highest level corporate executives.
It’s all done for the sake of building name recognition and public goodwill around brands and individuals.
But sometimes things don’t go as planned.
Here are 4 examples of reputation marketing mistakes to avoid, especially when conducting a reputation management campaign for a client:
1- Never Assume You Have Plugged All Leaks
Even when Hollywood studios kept the private lives of their stars under close control in the 1930s and 1940s, there were occasional scandals. Pregnancies, affairs, suspicious marriages, connections to foreign agents and propagandists, and other dark facts slipped out to the public.
Sooner or later, someone always talks.
Things often slip out purely by accident. It could be as simple as a letter or memo being left on a table or exposed to a camera wielded by an alert photographer.
In January 2019 then National Security Advisor John Bolton was photographed during a press briefing. The picture captured a cryptic note about sending 5,000 troops to Columbia. The world exploded with speculation.
Movie studios sometimes go to great lengths to hide the details of their productions.
But “spy pictures” may leak out, or crew members may whisper rumors about infighting among cast members. The celebrity gossip writers leap on these revelations and turn them into front-page stories.
One of the most scandal-ridden movie sets of the 20th century was the production for Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor. She began a well-publicized affair with her co-star, Sir Richard Burton. It didn’t help that the production ran over schedule and over budget.
When conducting a reputation management campaign, there’s always the chance that someone’s loose lips will endanger the ship. If hostile parties learn that your client is trying to improve their reputation through indirect means, the client may quickly have a bigger problem to deal with.
2- Don’t Play Fast and Loose with the Facts
One need look no further than the conflicts between conservatives and liberals in the news media. Every slight or egregious variation in representing the facts of any incident or exchange is thoroughly discussed and analyzed on social media, Websites, and in the news.
This happens the world over every month.
Some individuals of means have adamantly denied their guilt when committing crimes. The late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein – accused and charged in trafficking underage girls – allegedly paid “handlers” to help him cover up his crimes.
The truth eventually came out because he refused to change his lifestyle even while denying everything in public and in court.
Your clients may not feel they have any crimes to admit to, but trying to replace the facts with alternative narratives is a risky strategy. It’s better to stick to the facts that don’t hurt or which help the most than to invent false facts that will – when exposed to the public – only inflame further outrage and hostility.
3- Resist the Temptation to Create False Public Interest or Support
Sometimes it works. The tactic of fake it ‘till you make it can succeed if you spend enough money, but it can be expensive.
At the start of a certain candidate’s 2016 political campaign, temporary workers were hired to serve as a supportive crowd for the candidate’s announcement of entering the race. When the news media carried the story, their viewers saw a crowd waving signs and cheering as the politician announced his candidacy.
But within weeks, members of the crowd revealed they had been paid to pretend to be the candidate’s enthusiastic reporters.
In 2006, a famous American corporation hired a PR agency to promote its brand. The agency set up a fake travel blog using the corporation’s name. When the blog’s fakery was exposed to the public critics dubbed it a flog.
Brand owners have been careful not to engage in so-called astroturfing ever since, but it still happens. American intelligence agencies accuse foreign nations of creating fake social media accounts from which they spread false stories and memes.
Both liberals and conservatives are targeted by these reputation management campaigns, and they are so convincing people to share the propaganda without question.
But the fact that the foreign fakery has been discovered and widely denounced has led social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to cancel thousands of accounts.
Unfortunately some innocent brand-owned and private citizen accounts have been banned or suspended by the platforms because their algorithms returned false-positive results when scanning for fakery.
Once fakery is discovered, it leads to unforeseen consequences and may cause more harm to a reputation than whatever the original problem was.
Foreign spies can afford a few setbacks. Elite reputation marketing clients are less impervious to public outrage.
4- Keep as Many Key Players in the Loop as Necessary
While it may seem contrary to the idea of preventing leaks, a reputation management campaign can go awry if competing priorities clash in the process of communications.
Often these little faux pas are easily addressed. Corporate communications or publicity specialists can work with the two sources of the contradictory information and straighten things out.
But when you hire an outside agency to help with a reputation management campaign things may become more complicated.
An advertising agency might approve an ad that shouldn’t be broadcast.
Or a reputation management company may set up Websites that the client’s legal department has taken down.
The more prominent an elite client is, the more stakeholders there tend to be in reputation marketing.
It’s impossible to think of everything in advance. There will be occasional disruptions in the communications process.
When delivering the client’s brand message the content is controlled by a publicist, a marketing team, or a corporate communications group.
When repairing the client’s reputation the content may be controlled by both the client’s representatives and the reputation management specialist. They will have different priorities and some common ground must be chosen to minimize conflicts and false starts.
While some level of oversight is always required, some leeway is also necessary when handing some work to outside agencies.
While it may be tempting to micromanage the process, that isn’t efficient. The most prudent course of action is to make a backup or disaster recovery plan and keep it updated.
Sooner or later something will go wrong.
As long as you’re prepared to react quickly to mistakes and errors of judgment, you’re in a better position than if everyone suddenly learns the wrong way that something bad just happened.