How to Try and Restore a Reputation
By Aaron Broverman
After years of denials, lies and lawsuits, Lance Armstrong finally came clean to Oprah Winfrey that yes, he did blood dope, and that all of his many Tour de France wins and cycling accomplishments were the result of cheating. Meanwhile, Rob Ford finally admitted that he did indeed smoke crack cocaine after a series of lies and denials claiming the opposite. However, for him the crack was only the beginning, as a series of embarrassing and debaucherous incidents made him the laughing stock of the American media.
Now, both men are at a crossroads, their reputations in tatters and seemingly irrevocably damaged. But does that mean those reputations are beyond repair? We asked Jeff Ansell, founding media consultant and trainer at Toronto’s Jeff Ansell & Associates, that question:
“Lance Armstrong, personally, I don’t think so. Unless he starts making a living talking about the importance of ethics and honesty, writes a book about it, does a sincere mea culpa, bleeds a little bit for people – maybe then, there’s a chance.”
While he doesn’t think someone like Lance Armstrong can ever get out from under the shadow that they’ve created, that doesn’t mean all reputations can’t be rehabilitated. “Every situation is different. What’s the motive? Is it sincere?” asked Ansell. “There are apologies that are sincere and there are those that are phony.”
If you’re starting by saying you’re sorry, Ansell said your apology must include a few things before anyone will take you seriously:
- You’ve got to acknowledge specifically what happened. Don’t talk in generalities, as Eliot Spitzer did when he was found to be using prostitutes. You have to talk specifically about what happened and what you did wrong.
- Talk directly about the people you hurt along the way.
- In no way make any excuses.
- Pledge to change your behaviour.
- Accept responsibility.
- Walk the talk from that point on
In addition to doing all of the above, you can try to give back. When NFL star Michael Vick was released from prison after his animal cruelty conviction he went on a speaking tour talking about what he did, why he did it and why it was wrong.
“Giving back helps, as long as it’s genuine. It shows you’re not running away from it,” said Ansell. “Don’t be afraid to say I’m sorry and don’t be afraid to apologize just because you’re worried about liability.”
Of course, sometimes you can repeatedly accept full responsibility and make every sincere apology until you’re blue in the face and a scandal just doesn’t seem to go away. In those cases, you still have a few options to get your reputation back on track.
“There are some situations that people experience that just won’t go away,” admitted Ansell. “If somebody has been liabled or slandered, do they ignore it? Do they fight back? Do they let it go to court? It depends on what the impact is going to be if you do something and what the impact is going to be if you don’t do something.”
His best advice: don’t get into fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. You’ll only be fanning the flames and giving a story you’re trying to kill new life, ensuring that it lives on a little longer.
Unless you’re Alec Baldwin, who, Ansell points out, may want to repeatedly egg on the paparazzi and be portrayed as a media bad boy, he recommends working with the media and not antagonizing them. However, everyone who works with them must learn how to do so properly.
“That’s why I wrote the book, When the Headline is YOU: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media,” said Ansell, recommending that interview subjects get a sense of the tone and texture of the questions they will be asked ahead of time.
“On page 32 of the book, I give a list of questions that people should ask reporters before they do interviews to understand the proposed content and context of the encounter,” he confirmed, adding a small warning.
“Not all reporters are going to share that information, which by itself is revealing. I know when I was a reporter and someone asked to see the article before it was published, I would tell them to bugger off. The only time I ever acquiesced was when I was dealing with very technical information and I needed it confirmed by experts.”
Of course, thanks to the web, it’s now about getting it out, not getting right, which means your reputation is vulnerable even when the information is inaccurate or false.
“That’s very unfortunate,” said Ansell. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of journalism.”
Editor’s Note: All the more reason why you need a good social media monitoring platform and a crisis management in place so you can act immediately and appropriately.