How a good reputation is easily damaged.

Part 1 – Reading beyond the headlines?

Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow

The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing

Abraham Lincoln

“Publication” takes on a new meaning with the internet whereby communication is worldwide and messages can be downloaded and then sent along on further, disconnected routings.

Observers of the internet report an increase of false and defamatory attacks that are disseminated by networking sites and search engines.  The legal tension between libel rights and free expression remains fluid in this context.

The EU has solved this problem by building the “right to be forgotten” into their privacy laws.  In the EU Google is required to suppress, on request, search results that residents of the EU find inaccurate or offensive.  Google has cleverly side stepped the real issue by agreeing to suppress only on EU sites while leaving .com alone. No surprisingly The EU is pursuing a change to include .com.

With digital inaccuracies being published by even the most trusted branches of our government and legal system it’s hard to know the real from the fantastic.  While the national character of some countries is to question Americans largely believe what they read.  This has important implications for the individual trapped within a digital falsehood.

Reputation resides within the impressions, beliefs and evaluations others have formed and communicated regarding the person.  It lives within the person’s reputation network of other individuals. It’s communicated through rumor.

A rumor comprises unverified, unconfirmed information of uncertain origin and doubtful veracity that has got into general circulation.  It contains elements of truth as well as unfounded allegations.  A rumor may be positive or negative.  It’s a proposition or a belief of topical reference that makes its way into broad distribution within a person’s reputation network.

The best rumors are easy to remember, vivid and legitimized by what appears to be concrete detail or validating authorities.  Successful rumors thrive among subsets of a person’s reputation network like colleagues from a previous employer.

The news, for example, is not immune from reporting rumor because it contains some verifiable element of fact and appears to be supported by other events or rumors.  The best news rumor is often picked up from another news agency that failed to verify and corroborate their news.

The most exciting rumor contains ‘inside information’ that cannot be verified directly!

Mark Twain said “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”.

With the advent of social media, rumor spreads further and faster with more devastating effect to the point where key business organizations are asking their workers to not circulate unverified information.  Yet how do you know what is verified?  What appears verified is more often not.  What looks like the truth has its roots in misinformation or incorrect observations.  What seems “expert” is in fact merely reportage.

The most precious asset an individual or a company has is brand value and reputation.  Often this exceeds in importance any other asset and underpins the individual’s life, values and assets.

The Toyota 2009 recalls are probably the most comprehensive brand destruction in recent history where a common problem of hitting the accelerator when a driver thought they were hitting the brakes was interpreted as a fundamental technology malfunction.  8.5M cars were recalled. Sales collapsed. Share price toppled. Brand value dropped.  What the government saw as accelerator failure was in fact driver error.

I’ll give you a personal example – while working for Toys R Us I produced 10 major analytics projects ranging from segmentation of the customer file to analysis of the failure of the Juvenile business.  In the end almost 70,000 pages of work were produced vetted by thought leaders in our business.  Yet after I left my work was reviewed by individuals without experience in the database marketing business and was dismissed by them as “useless”.

One remark travels around and grows to the point where I was accused of not delivering any work.

Despite having re-presented the work, demonstrated positive impact on business and validated the work with an expert in our business the damage was done.  The rumor mill worked overtime and the result was reputation destruction on a broad scale with only limited options for rehabilitation.

The solution?

The only consistent solution I’ve found is to be transparent about the situation, and to be preemptive in presenting the situation to new contacts or employers.

And, while detractors live on I continue to live in hope that they might learn to read beyond the headline, and come to understand the complexity of human character.

It’s never simple, although we would sometimes like to believe it is.

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