It never fails. Another week passes and a new set of very public figures (i.e., athletes, celebrities, politicians, executives, etc.) are in trouble. Whether that trouble is on the legal or moral front, one thing is certain – it all plays out in the court of public opinion. We all know by now – how these individuals fare in this court has the biggest long-term impact on their reputation and image.
Recently, we find ourselves trying to wrap our heads around the secretly shot, grainy cell phone video of Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones and his intoxicated rant on former coach and current Miami Dolphins EVP of Football Operations, Bill Parcells and NFL prospect, Tim Tebow. We also witnessed how two of the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl stars, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and (now former) wide receiver Santonio Holmes, are faring in the aftermath of their “alleged” violent acts against women.
Last month, we watched Cleveland Browns’ defensive lineman Shaun Rogers exit a police station with his attorney after being arrested for carrying a loaded gun onto an airplane, and step up to the media’s microphones, issue his apology along with a brief explanation and then move on. And the list goes on…
If we haven’t learned by now, EVERYONE will face a crisis of some proportion at some point during the course of his or her career. How it is handled is the difference between reputation recovery and failure. Crisis management is one of the areas our team here at COMMENT Communications specializes in and our ability to manage our clients effectively through what we call the “Reputation Rehab” process.
We are all human and inevitably we will all say and do stupid things. However, given the digital age we live in, these mistakes, problems, issues, etc., play themselves out on a global stage in the form of traditional and social media. Fair or unfair, the exponential growth of technology has put us in a situation where we are forced to watch everything we say and do, or face the consequences of our actions and words.
It’s interesting how often times our society will judge a moral offense (if you will) more harshly than a criminal one and never before has character counted more.
Why do we care about what Jerry Jones said in an intoxicated state of mind? By comparison, none of the women Tiger engaged with sexually did so unwillingly and Ben Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault twice now. Yet Tiger is vilified in the media for months on end and while he and Jesse James attend sex rehab, Big Ben escapes prosecution and gets a six-game suspension.
The answers are obvious and at the same time debatable. Again, fair or unfair, it really doesn’t matter. The bottom-line is when you live and operate in the public spotlight, you are held to a higher standard. You are (usually) paid handsomely for what you do and you have companies, corporate sponsors, teams, networks, employees, team owners and others to whom you are accountable. So if you’re going to accept the position, you have to accept what comes along with it.
Solutions – The Road to Reputation Recovery
So What Do You Do?
1. Don’t Be A Hero. Put your ego aside and know when to ask for help. Even if you are an expert, don’t operate in a vacuum.
2. Get a solid media and overall communications strategy in place immediately and deal with the situation at hand in a positive, strategic and constructive manner. Then make known those positive action steps, as they will aid in the road to recovery and regaining the trust and faith of the key people with whom you have lost that faith. Your sponsors, media, fan base, etc. need to know and be informed every step of the way. You HAVE to be accountable to them.
3. Show that you are human and be accountable. If you are at fault, own your actions and your words. Do NOT blame others. If you are not at fault, work with your PR counsel to effectively state your position and tell your story, without pointing fingers or placing blame on others.
It is always a bad idea to argue with, accuse or retaliate against the media, especially if you feel you have been painted negatively. Your words will forever be twisted, you will never win, and you will end up looking far worse. Remember, the media ALWAYS has the last word and the “media” is far bigger than it used to be.
4. Make your necessary apologies. In the aftermath of the “cell phone video set up,” Jerry Jones spoke with Parcells and apparently they had a good conversation. Parcells was a pro about it and Jones is obviously pretty embarrassed. But they will get past it and life will move on. Jones is a smart and savvy man who understands the bigger picture and he will certainly recover.
5. Understand there will be initial losses, but recovery is possible. Sponsorships, endorsements, contract extensions, etc. may and usually will take a hit. Big Ben lost his beef jerky deal and his only other endorsement deal hangs in the balance. As Jim Rome said, “These aren’t blue chip companies here, we’re talking jerky, gas station grub, the filet mignon of AM/PM.” To that end, Tiger lost several blue chip deals and Kobe Bryant lost virtually all of them several years ago. But with the right plan of attack and execution, you can rebuild in time. Kobe, Martha Stewart and others are prime examples.
6. Deal – but do not dwell on the issue. Address it, deal with it and begin the painful process of MOVING FORWARD. Get back into what you do well and create new and positive stories for the media to talk about, fans to cheer about, and people to smile about. This is the fastest way to recovery.
7. Be responsible, mature and professional as you go forward. Don’t try to “spin” at any point because when you spin you don’t win. It’s not about spin. Spin is twisting truths in an attempt to deflect blame and accountability. Recovery depends on levels of truth that enable you to tell your story and ensure the end result is balanced.
Will it be easy? No. Will it be painful? Absolutely. Will it impact your bottom line? Potentially. But recovery all depends on the plan you put in place, how well it is executed, staying on strategy and adapting as necessary.
8. Regain and rebuild your leadership position. Understand what happened and be patient with the recovery. People will continue to bring it up. It may haunt you for days, weeks and years to come. Eventually, it will go away, but only if you take the proper steps in managing the crisis at the outset. You want to be remembered for how well you maneuvered through the crisis, not how poorly you handled the situation.
And always remember you are held to a higher standard. You are in the spotlight. Somebody is always watching you and you never know if they have a camera.
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Wesley Mallette is the CEO of Comment Communications, a sports and entertainment communications firm, focused on strategic public relations, media training, image consulting, crisis communication and issues management, as well as helping athletes build their post-athletic careers in the broadcast booth.
By leveraging the firm’s expertise and deep relationships with the media, Comment works with its clients to help tell their stories and position the athletes and companies they represent in a way that enables them to maneuver successfully through today’s complex traditional and social media environment.