How to Honestly Promote a Client with a Troubled Past
Business and corporate executive reputations generate billions of dollars in sales.
People buy goods and services from brands they know and trust.
And any company or individual can develop brand value regardless of their size in terms of market or geographical visibility.
Many small business owners become famous in their communities through advertising, word of mouth, and supporting community events. Everyone remembers some famous local business leader from when they were children because they saw them on television or heard them on the radio all the time.
It’s devastating when a rumor or news story unravels years or decades of hard work. Regardless of the merits or veracity of negative press about a business or celebrity, there’s almost always collateral harm to innocent people whose lives and livelihoods may be threatened by scandals and accusations.
Many successful businesses depend on providing good customer service to build their brand value.
But some businesses rely more on advertising than service to create a mystique that consumers fall in love with.
And community leaders, celebrities, and local personalities may enjoy years of prosperity and popularity until their personal lives are thrust into the limelight.
No one is perfect, and some people never want to change their ways.
But when you take on a reputation management campaign, you cannot afford to be judgmental.
The time for due diligence and careful consideration of the facts for the reputation management specialist is before you sign the contract.
Once you commit to helping the client your job is to help rebuild that lost trust. You may be asked to do impossible things. You may be asked to take some risks.
Leaping blindly into wild and risky strategies may only make things worse. A reputation management specialist should be the calm, professional voice in the conversation. The client wants immediate relief from their pain, especially if their reputation has been harmed by false accusations.
First, Set Reasonable Expectations
Unless you’re good at filtering clients by circumstance, they’ll come to you with a wide array of situations requiring assistance. Your special experience and expertise bring them to you, but once you’ve done everything you’re prepared to do, things quickly become more challenging.
Issuing takedown notices, seeking restraining orders, and other legal steps are a necessary part of any reputation management campaign. Even when representing clients who have been convicted of crimes, attorneys are the front-line defenders against false and misleading information.
But once the allegations have taken on a life of their own, your client must be prepared to wait for some things to change. Pushing back too hard against criticism and hostility may only prolong the situation. The client needs to understand this risk thoroughly before starting a reputation management campaign.
The Low-Hanging Fruit is Only Phase One of the Strategy
If clients could fix their reputation problems by changing policies, issuing press releases, giving interviews, discontinuing products, or apologizing to the public they would not need help.
Still, some easy things that every reputation management campaign can be accomplished quickly.
These easy victories should be framed as the first of several steps toward regaining trust.
One common first step is to ensure that clients or their representatives own the “brand name space”. That is, you don’t want anyone to register social media accounts or create Websites that could be mistaken for the client’s own assets.
But merely creating accounts and Websites only blocks certain hostile moves.
What comes next?
Reputation management specialists should be thinking about what comes next even though the clients are not yet ready to have that discussion. When they see any success at all they’ll want to know what else you can do for them.
That’s where your advance planning gives you the means to show them one or two options.
The Client’s Story Is Important and Should Be Told
Any public response by the client could be as damaging as the initial situation that led them to ask for help.
Such messages are often best managed by emotionally independent and unbiased representatives.
But regardless of how the response is crafted and delivered, once it begins to appear on Websites, the most likely outcome is that it competes for attention with hostile content.
Just as the hostile parties’ stories draw unfavorable attention to a business or personality, the client story has the potential to attract less biased responses.
The more sincere and accurate the story is the more credible it becomes. The best way forward is to focus on the future, to emphasize what is being done in the present to avoid creating yet more hostile feelings.
While some clients may feel they are completely justified in their positions and feel defensive, their published responses to criticism and rebuke will be exposed to online commentary and critical narration.
The current story must be impeccable.
Focus on the Information that Is Mutually Beneficial to Everyone Else
What is the client doing now that is worth promoting?
How is the client helping people going forward?
These are the stories the client should be telling.
The reputation management specialist need not own the conversation. The message can be delivered via press conferences, press releases, interviews with objective news media, and on their own assets.
The reputation management campaign must have positive, favorable content to work with.
Creating positive spin around negative content only highlights the negative content.
The purpose of telling the client’s story is to help move attention forward toward the new value the client brings to the community. The past cannot be changed, but most old wounds can be healed, especially if the client has taken steps to change whatever led to hostile reactions.
Avoid Controversy and Controversial Strategies
Some people imagine the best defense is a strong offense. Ironically, going on the offensive against hostile claims and complaints may only give further offense.
Regardless of who is right or wrong, putting people on the defensive is more likely to win them sympathy and new allies in their campaigns to destroy a reputation.
For the same reason, so-called “carpet bombing” and “astroturfing” strategies designed to create the false impression that “the masses are on our side” often backfire, leading to yet more criticism and hostility.
Widespread public outreach is a good thing. Pretending that the general public is supporting a client through a troubled time is not. Every testimonial, every supporting story, and every public declaration of good faith must be sincere.
Asking a reputation management specialist to promote false information risks wasting a lot of time and money, and in the end may make it even more difficult to calm the storm and shine the light on the positive things the client has done, is doing, and is committed to doing.
Social Media Is a Two-edged Sword
Successful online reputation management is often more about reputation repair. Social media provides several useful channels for engaging with the public and building new relationships.
But any content shared on social media should be carefully framed in as non-controversial way as possible. Gimmick strategies like using levity to mock critics or pretend a stark situation isn’t so bad often lead to additional negative attention and hostility.
The message should be clear, simple, and focused on what the business or individual is doing in a matter-of-fact way.
Gauge the reactions to social media shares and promote those shares that receive the least hostility. Some people will never let go of their anger, but rising above the emotional responses may be possible.
Rebuttals Are Sometimes the Best Solutions
When a client obviously has the moral high ground – such as when provably falsely accused – the reputation management campaign should highlight the rebuttal in as non-confrontational a way as possible.
People will eventually be swayed by the facts — as long as the story is about the facts. While some strategies may seek to win emotional support from the public for a visibly wronged client, that may not be possible. As an example, working-class people are less likely to feel sympathy for a wealthy investment fund manager.
As long as the client’s rebuttal is solid, sincere, and supported by corroborating information, the facts are the best part of their story. The more the news media focuses on the verifiable facts that vindicate or exonerate the client in the court of public opinion, the better.
While there’s no simple formula for fixing every damaged reputation, effective strategies share a few common traits. They focus on the strongest parts of the clients’ story.
And these are usually the facts that are most acceptable to the public.
The less confrontational and deceptive a reputation management strategy tries to be, the fewer rationalizations people have for being hostile. Hostility may persist, especially when fed by false allegations and unsubstantiated rumors, but reputation management works best with solid, confirmed information that disputes falsehoods.