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Legendary investment gurus John Bogle and Warren Buffett always got it: Chasing short-term gain is a fool’s errand. The same is true for coping with crises and other situations that threaten your reputation.
You’ve heard all sorts of warnings before: Be proactive. Buy insurance. Do an assessment. But where’s the advice for when things actually get rough?
When things go sideways, you’ve only got a few minutes to respond. There’s a delicate balance between the pressure for immediate action and the potential for the negative long-term effects of doing or saying things that are poorly thought out.
It’s no longer a matter of ‘If …’ — it’s ‘Will we survive this?’
It’s common for well-intentioned people to overcorrect and end up making the situation worse. It’s like hitting a patch of black ice and starting to skid. Your natural instinct is to turn in the opposite direction, but you’ve learned it’s actually best to turn into the skid. Sometimes the solution is counterintuitive.
When you’re accused of something, you’re presumed guilty from the get-go. Thanks to the internet, it’s harder than ever to hide from your past failures. On the bright side, your successes (and your side of the story) live alongside them.
If the accusations are false, there are a few ways you can respond. Simply denying the actions is the least effective option. Instead, demonstrate your innocence. The most dangerous kind of false accusations are those made by a rogue employee or unhappy client that contain a nugget of truth. Since they’re rooted in reality (however tenuously), they’re more believable. You cannot sit back and hope the rumor mill will sort itself out. You must be proactive and tell your story on your terms to set the record straight.
If the accusations are true, your choices are limited. The truth always seems to find a way out, so you can’t deny it all. If the story drags on while more facts surface, your reputation will suffer. Instead, mitigate the damage by shifting the attention and changing the conversation.
Tell your story (or someone else will).
Communicate with all of your audiences. This includes employees, customers, vendors, investors, the media and the public. While most things don’t get into the media, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be dealt with. Otherwise, misinformation will take any matter down the wrong path.
Understand that perception is reality.
Everyone has their own version of reality. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. But perceptions can be influenced. The more subtle the influence, the better. Christopher Nolan’s movie “Inception” was based on this premise: You need to steer people to believe that they’re coming to conclusions on their own. If you force it, it backfires.
When devising your strategy, consider these factors:
• Are you acting early to preempt a problem? This is the best position to be in. Consider how much you can do if you know in advance that an unhappy employee is going to sue, an embezzlement will be discovered, an SEC investigation is coming or a merger or acquisition is in the works.
• Is the issue already public? If it is, you have less room to maneuver. This doesn’t mean you should give up and let the issue take on a life of its own. You must analyze your options dispassionately. Which are likely to succeed? (Hint: They may not be the ones you’d prefer.)
• Is there an existing perception? If there is, is it good, bad or neutral?
• How’s the issue currently framed? If it’s not to your liking, how you can you transform it positively?
• What’s the context? This will determine where you’ve been, where you are now and where you can go with it.
• Are you controlling the message? If so, you have the advantage of being on offense. If not, you’re fighting uphill.
You don’t have the luxury to say, ‘I didn’t know.’
If you’re a leader, you’re expected to know everything that goes on in your company. Whether that’s a fair expectation is a whole other argument. But the bottom line is the same: If you didn’t know, you should have. If you did, you’re culpable.
Act quickly, but never take your eyes off the horizon.
Are the tone and message right for the long-term? How will the audiences that are most important to you perceive your company next week, next month or next year?
An overarching theme former Intel CEO Andy Grove wrote about in Only the Paranoid Survive is that beating the competition with one product or for one season is temporary. The ultimate victor must win the war, not just a battle. The same is true for protecting your reputation.
If you know a dispute will soon become public and your image is less than it should be, now is the time to start polishing it. Build up your bank of goodwill before a crisis hits. Otherwise, your reputation may end up in the red.
Realize you can’t please everyone.
No matter how hard you try, someone will say you didn’t make the right decision or do enough. It’s your job to communicate clearly and reassuringly. This means knowing what to say to which audience and how to do it. The tone will be different for each audience, but the underlying message for all of them must be consistent.
Distance yourself and your company.
What do you do if one of the founders or executives is doing something that violates the company’s values?
It’s hard to push out someone who’s been with the company from the beginning or for as long as you can remember. But if you don’t do it quickly, what started off as a small infection can become a trip to the emergency room.
The next time things get rough, take a deep breath before you say or do anything you can’t take back. Prepare your strategy but leave room to pivot. And focus on protecting yourself — both in the short term and the long term.
May 1, 2019 at 07:31AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs