How Long Is Reputation Management Needed?
If the names Max Blanck and Isaac Harris mean nothing to you, don’t be surprised. Most people would say they have never heard of these men.
But many college and high school students throughout the USA have studied the legacy of these two early 20th-century industrialists.
In 1911, Blanck and Harris owned the Triangle Waist Company, which operated a factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of what was then called the Asche Building in New York City. Both Blanck and Harris had been accused of arson several times in the past. A fire broke out on March 25, 1911, when the two men brought their families to visit the shirtwaist factory, which manufactured women’s blouses.
The fire killed 146 people, but Blanck and Harris – and their families – survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s rooftop. Most of the deaths resulted from a then-common practice of locking all the exits from the factory to prevent workers from stealing merchandise or taking unauthorized breaks.
The New York City Fire Marshall concluded that the fire started in a scrap bin underneath a cutter’s table, probably after someone threw a burning cigarette or match into the bin. Smoking was forbidden in the factory and the owners’ presence could have caused someone to panic.
The New York Times and Collier’s magazine proposed alternate theories. An industry journal named The Insurance Monitor noted that shirtwaists were no longer in demand and that insurance companies were taking on great risk in providing coverage for such manufacturers.
The fire’s origin remains a mystery to this day.
Blanck and Harris were prosecuted but acquitted for first- and second-degree manslaughter. They were then sued in civil court for wrongful death and found liable. Although the judgment stipulated $75 compensation for each death, the insurance company paid Blank and Harris $400 per death.
Blanck was arrested 2 years later for locking doors in another factory, but he only paid a $20 fine.
Both men faded from history after that.
Despite Headlines and History Books, People Remember the Fire but Not the Owners
The public relations industry was still young in 1911, and the commercial Internet would not exist for another 80 years. Even television and radio had not yet brought Americans together in anything like social media.
The people of New York were keenly aware of the Triangle Fire, and the labor union movement benefited greatly from the disaster.
Despite a lack of social machinery to manipulate public opinion – and the many forces arrayed against the reputations of the men – they are largely forgotten.
The lesson to be learned from this and other public disasters is that the public tends to forget whom to blame even while mourning the loss of life.
Public Outrage Is Unpredictable
Tragic events may inspire public outrage and demands for change, but the people accused of negligence may never be held accountable.
Some of the most famous movies in Hollywood history were plagued by injuries and deaths due to the negligence of producers and directors, but they were never prosecuted for those losses. Serious injuries occurred during the filming of several of Cecil B. DeMille’s movies, and several people were said to have drowned during the filming of Michael Curtiz’s 1928 movie Noah’s Ark.
Both were celebrated, directors.
On the other hand, public outrage may never die down. Examples include the accusations made against former NFL and film star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of charges of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Goldman’s family won a wrongful death suit against Simpson, and he never recovered the public’s goodwill.
It may take many years for an activist to raise public awareness of abuse by a powerful, influential person. Great Britain has been rocked by scandals involving some of its most well-known personalities and government officials who have been exposed as child abusers, mostly posthumously.
In the United States, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein dodged similar accusations for years — despite being arrested and prosecuted before he finally died in jail, awaiting a new trial.
Once ignited, the flame of public hostility may flame out quickly or smolder for years, never fully go out.
Some Reputations Cannot Be Repaired
Where a client has clearly been guilty of wrongdoing, there may be no recourse but to accept the public’s judgment. Bernie Madoff ruined the lives of many people and will always be remembered as the greatest pyramid scheme operator in history.
A corporation may have a better chance of regaining the public’s trust and goodwill even if its actions are responsible for any injuries and losses. The board of directors and executive officers may need to leave the company. It may need to divest itself of controversial assets.
The American tobacco industry fought health-based accusations that threatened to undermine industry profitability for decades. After agreeing to a landmark $200 billion+ settlement in 1998, the industry’s leading companies were compelled to reorganize and rebuild.
Even so, some of the Big Tobacco companies faced new suits and charges due to illegal behavior.
If the client refuses to change a bad behavior, reputation management & repair is merely a deception. Not everyone agrees to be complicit in such campaigns. But ongoing brand-building may be seen as a way to compensate for repetitive negative attention.
Some Reputation Clients Are Not Allowed to Forget
Some people — perhaps because of their wealth or social status — may attract long-term hostility for the misdeeds of their youth. A distasteful action such as attending a controversial party, wearing a racist costume, or promoting ideas that fall out of favor may periodically resurface in news stories and social action campaigns.
Despite what good things such people accomplish in their lives and careers, or how much remorse or sincere change they express, some members of the public won’t allow them to forget.
Critics of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders frequently mention his trip to the Soviet Union when he was a mayor, after which he spoke positively about the Soviet lifestyle.
Senator Sanders champions many popular causes, but his reputation is weighed down by the stigma attached to his past controversial actions. While the people of his community and state continue to elect him to office, other Americans distrust or dislike the Senator.
He rightly points out that millions of Americans lose their employer-provided health insurance every year, but not enough voters believe he can help improve America’s healthcare system because of his self-admitted socialism.
Some sins simply cannot be washed away in the public eye by any amount of good deeds.
Search Engines May Be Even More Unforgiving
Search engines are complex databases that collect every bit of information they can. Their algorithms are blind to moral convictions and atonement. The public may be willing to forgive and forget, but algorithms and databases don’t.
The problem with search engines is that they can keep alive the memory of youthful indiscretions long after they should have been forgotten. The issue is so sensitive that the European Union passed a law requiring search engines to remove old, truthful information from their results if EU citizens request it.
The executives who run these companies insist the public has a right to know, even if presenting such information unnecessarily inflames misplaced hostility. People who have lived lawful, moral lives for decades may find themselves subjected to verbal abuse or harassment because someone found something in an online search about their past.
The Internet did not create these moral conflicts. It only intensified them because those who surface the harmful information are themselves subject to criticism and verbal abuse for making their controversial decisions.
If anything, the public backlash against search engines’ policies seems only to strengthen their executives’ resolve.
Reputation Management Is Justifiable in Many Situations
Whether a person or organization has been harmed by misinformation – such as when false rumors are circulated online – or the client has changed and wishes to move on, reputation management provides a socially and morally valuable service.
Sometimes the victim of a crime is not allowed to forget the trauma he or she experienced because the public is fascinated with the event. People don’t stop to think about how being forced to relive such episodes in public extends the abuse victims endured. If the perpetrator of the crime has been punished, the victim may only want to move on.
Some clients may have been guilty of crimes years ago, but are they not allowed to build better lives for themselves and their families after leaving prison?
Should the families of online reputation management clients pay for the bad judgment of their relatives?
Time wounds some heels forever, and it heals some wounds gradually. If you or your clients are looking for a definitive answer to the question how long is reputation management needed, that answer doesn’t exist.
Reputation management may never achieve its goals.
Some reputation management campaigns may appear to wipe away all negative news stories, but after a few years, the search engines and social media may bring back all the bad. No one can change the past, but we all have the freedom to shape the future. Effective reputation management is not built on how long it takes to bury the past but on how long it takes to move into the future.