10 Ways Leaders Can Protect Their Reputations in 2011

By Davia Temin

The year 2010 was remarkable for its series of public gaffes made by CEOs and other leaders that shattered organizations, share price, job tenure, coastlines, and even religious tolerance.  In 2011, we can learn from their mistakes in order to protect our own reputations.

Of course, one way to never need to protect your reputation is to live a totally invisible and blameless life – but most leaders who wish to accomplish something significant are visible, and do make mistakes.

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So, culled from 25 years working in the field of reputation and crisis management at the highest levels, and seeing almost every gaffe imaginable, here are my Top 10 ways for leaders to protect their reputations – and their legacies – in 2011.

  1. There is no such thing as privacy anymore. Act as if your every action, every e-mail, every conversation will be observed and judged. From WikiLeaks posting tens of thousands of confidential diplomatic wires to Fabrice Tourre’s midnight emails; from Mark Hurd’s exaggerated expense accounts at HP and Tony Hayward’s exhausted plea that he wanted “his life back” to video cameras positioned on every corner and private acts caught and posted on YouTube, almost everything is discoverable today. So, begin to factor this into your every communication and action. Remember, it might all come back to haunt you, and what you have said or done might not be interpreted generously by your critics!
  2. If you do err, apologize. People’s anger is fueled when an organization, or an individual, minimizes or refuses to acknowledge a mistake. In fact, research has found the corollary is true as well: a heartfelt admission of a mistake can make the public look on you more kindly. Doctors are now told that their chances of being sued over medical errors are far reduced if they “‘fess up,” and apologize to their patients or their patients’ families, instead of stonewalling. One must know how to do this correctly, however. A misstep can be worse than no comment at all.
  3. But, do not let a lie stand, if you can help it. In today’s 25/8 communications world, misconceptions travel and multiply at the speed of electrons, especially if they are fueled by competitors or enemies. In fact, more often than not, the truth means little when pitted against conventional wisdom or whipped up misperception. So, monitor what is being said about you and your organization in real time. And, if lies or misconceptions surface, fight back strategically with the truth whenever you can. Set the record straight tirelessly in person, in print, broadcast, and on the web, if you feel you are being maligned or misinterpreted. This is tough to do, but you can use the world of social media to help you rebut falsehoods, as long as you do this wisely.
  4. That said, you need to know when to be silent, and how to control your impulsive reactions. When you are under scurrilous, personal, “ad hominem attacks – baseless and full of lies – it can make you crazy. But do not give in to the temptation to lash back publicly right away, or shoot from the hip. It is better to be quiet and deliberate first. Sometimes you cannot defend against the indefensible, and to protest only makes you look guilty. There are times when it is best to go radio silent until an irrational storm dies down. Then, plan your strategy for a comeback.
  5. When you do respond, make sure to get your messaging pitch perfect, and then stick to it…over and over and over again. Don’t be provoked into saying too much, or going off message – in certain climates that is bound to be misinterpreted. Truthfulness and transparency are crucial, but rambling, pointless, “ready, fire, aim” comments or reactions can be dangerous.
  6. Don’t repeat an allegation or an untruth while you are defending against it. This is axiomatic in the field of crisis and reputation management, but only recently have we found out why. New brain research has documented that the brain hears a denial as if the thing you are denying is true! So, the more you say you didn’t beat your wife, the more the listener believes you did. Instead, respond with a positive affirmation of the truth, one that countermands the allegation, but does not repeat it.
  7. Make sure you are seen as someone who is believable, first-rate, and deserving of the highest reputation. And here, we can get into some touchy and controversial issues around personal and executive presence: how you communicate, how you sound, how you look, and how you come across overall. My most important advice for leaders or those who seek to become leaders – learn how to speak and communicate flawlessly to all sorts of audiences. Make sure your grammar is perfect; your reasoning clear, concise, and powerful; your speech resonant and accent free; your quotes quotable; and your storytelling ability dazzling.
  8. And make sure you look the part you wish to play. This does not mean you must look flawless or unnatural, or that you wear only designer clothes and get $400 haircuts, but you do need to be aware of how you come across. If you wish to be known as a leader, act and look professional in the extreme, yet retain a universal touch. Your reputation is forged largely on the totality of the impression you make in person, over the phone, in emails and texts, on video, in presentations, and in public. Anything that interferes with the impression you wish to convey should be eliminated, or at least minimized. I have seen great leaders confined to wheelchairs who, through their presence, projection, and sheer power of will, come across more impressively than the most handsome or beautiful among us. But, they have thought strategically about the image they wish to project, and then done so.
  9. Authenticity is ineffable, but undeniable. Possibly, it is more important than any other personal quality. In our slick, cynical time, full of free-floating public anger at the economic, corporate, and personal mistakes of our leaders and leading institutions that have caused immeasurable pain, nothing can harm you more than being seen as trying to be who and what you are not. And nothing can help you more than being known as earnest…and real. We’ve all heard the aphorisms: “walk the talk,” “be the change you wish to see in the world,” etc. But, I promise you, it is not just talk. If you can project who you really are, and what you really care about, a coherent and impressive reputation will follow.
  10. Seek to channel your highest self in all of your interactions, both personal and professional. Freud called it the “ego ideal,” or a “more or less conscious ideal of personal excellence.” The closer we all get to living a life that is in sync with our ego ideal, the more fulfilled we will be, he said. And, so, when you speak and act from your highest self, it also helps you radiate a powerful aura. You can speak with passion, you can inspire, and you can lead powerfully. And, in so doing, you will earn the kind of reputation that almost all of us seek, both for ourselves, and those who surround and lead us.

Davia Temin is the founder and CEO of Temin and Company, a boutique management consultancy focused on creating, enhancing, and saving reputations for global corporations, professional and financial services firms, venture and private equity-backed startups and new products, and major foundations and universities. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DaviaTemin.