Reputation management

August 26, 2010

By Mark McNeely

On August 22 this year, The New York Times published a lengthy article in its Sunday business section highlighting the public relations gaffes fueled by the “fiascos” at BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs recently.

According to the article by Times reporter Peter S. Goodman, “The calamities have served up a lifetime supply of case studies to be mined for lessons on best practices, as well as pitfalls to avoid when disaster arrives.

“As conventional wisdom has it, the three companies at the center of these fiascos worsened their problems by failing to heed established protocol: When the story is bad, disclose it immediately – awful parts included – lest you be forced to backtrack and slide into the death spiral of lost credibility.

“Exhibit A in the lesson book on forthright crisis management is the mass recall of Tylenol in 1982, after the deaths of seven people who ingested tainted painkillers. Johnson & Johnson acknowledged that some of its product had been poisoned and pulled bottles off store shelves.

“In the view of many who are paid to extract corporations from terrible situations, Toyota, BP and Goldman exacerbated their woes by either declining to fess up promptly, casting blame elsewhere, or striking adversarial postures with the public, the government and the news media,” Goodman’s opus states.

But, according to an article by J.R. Hipple of Hipple Reputation Management in Atlanta in the August e-newsletter of the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselors Academy, “What Goodman doesn’t really address in the in-depth article is the underlying cause and solution to corporate misdeeds: ethical leadership and the responsibility of the C-Suite to manage corporate culture.”

“According to Rushworth Kidder, best-selling author and president of the Global Institute for Ethics, the only way out of this ethical mess is for leaders to build a culture of integrity in their organizations. Through Kidder’s work with CEOs around the world, he has determined that the foundation of any ethical culture requires leaders to have the courage to be:

HONEST

RESPONSIBLE

RESPECTFUL

FAIR

COMPASSIONATE

No arguments against that here. But wouldn’t it be nice if things were that easy? Sometimes the easiest things are the hardest: Admit mistakes, apologize and move on if your organization or its people are truly to blame. If system improvements are required, make improvements. But make them real, and not superficial shields against public acrimony.

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