That corporate scandal that surfaced with your face squarely in the crosshairs? That deeply-regretted affair? That speeding ticket you got as a teenager? Be prepared to explain it all, says Robert L. Dilenschneider. Here’s how to protect your reputation in the digital age.
New York, NY (August 2023) – In our hyper-connected world, the shadows of our past actions can loom large. Whether you had a much-regretted moment of infidelity or were arrested for (or worse, charged with) a crime many years ago, trust us: the internet knows. Heck, even that speeding ticket you got as a teenager can be pulled up from the digital depths within seconds. And if you’re a company, your past (or present) misdeeds will certainly be splashed across social media within seconds of discovery.
How should one navigate this era of relentless transparency? Robert L. Dilenschneider says the only answer—for private individuals, public figures, and giant corporations alike—is to embrace your past, lean into it, and learn from it.
“Rather than sidestepping the issue, address it directly and publicly,” advises Dilenschneider, author of Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY bestseller The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know (Matt Holt Books, July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377429-3-8, $28.00). “Not as an attempt to escape accountability, but as a way to demonstrate growth and wisdom garnered from each experience.”
Five Ways To Guard Your Reputation
The more power and influence you have, the greater the efforts of others to take them away—or at least take them down a few notches. That’s why Dilenschneider says it’s crucial to carefully guard your reputation against attacks. Get proactive about addressing past experiences that could potentially come back to haunt you.
That doesn’t necessarily mean making a public confession too quickly. After all, the worst might not happen. Even so, you need to be prepared. Here are a few things individuals and companies should do right now to protect their reputations—before and after the scandal breaks.
Take an honest look at your history.
In the digital age, it’s safe to assume your life is an open book. Dilenschneider says everyone should google themselves, know what will come up, and be prepared to address it. For companies, he recommends creating a written plan for how you’ll handle a crisis before it ever occurs. For individuals, make sure there’s a reason for everything—and be prepared for pushback.
“Did you receive a speeding ticket when you were 16?” he says. “Think of whether you had a reasonable explanation for it. Late for work your first day at a paid job? That won’t cut it. You should have planned ahead for traffic. You were a reckless teenager who didn’t understand the power of the pedal? Well, at least that’s honest. And you haven’t had another ticket since, right?
“Does it sound ridiculous that someone might dredge up an old speeding ticket?” Dilenschneider says. “Well, let’s say you’ve taken a public stand against drunk driving and support tougher laws. Someone could find out about your ticket—not knowing it was for speeding—and call you a hypocrite. It’s easier to fix a problem before it becomes one.”
Don’t sidestep the issue. Lean in and address it.
When skeletons do arise—be they criminal records, affairs, or something else—the worst response is to sidestep the issue. Facing the issue head-on tends to yield the best results. Address the matter directly, clarify the situation, express regret where needed, and outline the steps you are taking to rectify the situation or prevent a recurrence. Above all, focus on what you’ve learned from the experience.
“The concept of ‘sunlight as the best disinfectant’ holds very true in this context,” says Dilenschneider. “Transparency and honesty are your best allies when addressing past mistakes or a crisis. A genuine commitment to transparency can turn a potential PR crisis into an opportunity for building trust and demonstrating integrity.”
WHAT NOT TO DO: The General Mills Shrimp Tail Incident
In March of 2021, podcast host and comedian Jensen Karp tweeted a photo of what he said he found in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal: two shrimp tails. After offering to send Karp a replacement box of cereal, the social media team tweeted that those weren’t shrimp tails; they were cinnamon sugar clumps.
Keep in mind that Karp’s tweet had included a photo, so thousands could see for themselves that the “accumulation” of cinnamon sugar looked exactly like shrimp tails. As can—and does—happen in the Twitterverse, a flood of ridicule and memes followed. Soon, the shrimp tails leapt from Twitter to news stories in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Business Insider, and broadcasts such as Fox News and CNN.
“The social media team for Cinnamon Toast Crunch should have responded with the alacrity and seriousness appropriate for a matter of consumer health, even if it couldn’t verify the contamination or quickly trace how it might have happened,” notes Dilenschneider. “In fact, one manager responded that it couldn’t have happened in his facility, which sounded like passing the blame, not reassuring customers.”
Bottom line: Instead of the ridiculous explanation of accumulated cinnamon sugar, General Mills could have responded by recalling all the boxes sold at Costco, where Karp had purchased his cereal. Stories like this live on via the internet, and if you google “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” you’ll see lots more sordid details.
If an untruth is being spread, address it quickly and earnestly.
Sometimes we think we are limiting the impact of a rumor by not addressing it, but these things can harm your credibility and come back to bite you. If you see something untrue, don’t be afraid to set the record straight. Dilenschneider offers the following example from his own life.
“Many years ago, I was about to have the greatest honor any devout Catholic could receive: a meeting with the Pope,” he recalls. “It was to be at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in Italy. But just before my dream was fulfilled, Il Mondo, Italy’s leading business weekly, ran a story based on an anonymous source that ‘exposed’ my supposed connection with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time. I denied any connection, but didn’t take the story seriously and didn’t pursue a retraction because I knew it was completely untrue.
“However, the Pope’s staff deemed our meeting poor optics because of that story, and our meeting was cancelled,” he adds. “Later, the perception of this connection came back to haunt me with operatives who had assumed it was accurate. Believe me, it would have been easier to put out the fire initially.”
Never forget: the best defense is a good offense.
Whether you’re an individual or a company, build credibility by adhering to your values, being scrupulously honest, and treating the people in your sphere (whether they’re friends and family or employees, clients, or other stakeholders) with fairness, respect, and compassion. This way, if and when a scandal or crisis does hit, people are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and, if needed, be willing to forgive past offenses and move on.
“Building an army of supporters is also crucial,” says Dilenschneider. “This isn’t about rallying defenders but about forging connections with those who appreciate your journey. They can help you navigate the crisis, help validate your response, and support you as you move forward.”
“In the end, we’re all human and we all make mistakes,” he adds. “Few people have a spotless reputation, and honestly, few companies do either. The best thing you can do is cultivate a reputation for honesty, humility, and continuous learning and growth.”
About the Author:
Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY bestseller The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know, formed The Dilenschneider Group in October 1991. Headquartered in New York, Miami, and Chicago, the firm provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals around the world, with experience in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions and crisis communications to marketing, government affairs, and international media.
About the Book:
The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know (Matt Holt Books, July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377429-3-8, $28.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.