Staying Strong: Why Toughing It Out Can Be The Best Option For Your Reputation

Protecting a reputation in the face of political and media scrutiny is a high-pressure business. Decisions taken can have long-term implications and often the line of least resistance, to make the whole issue go away, is used. But the consequences of this approach can be more damaging. Instead, think about staying strong and toughing it out.

This approach is not without its risks and once the course is set, you need to stick to it. To follow a tough line means knowing that you are on really solid ground to start with and having the spokespeople available who will continue to hold fast.

If there is a danger that you are going to act tough only to collapse in the coming days then get the pain over with early and concentrate on repairing the damage.

It is important to remember that what you say and do in the face of a crisis isn’t confined to just a few days. Instead, opponents, politicians, regulators, consumer groups and others could look to use every word and statement against you in the coming weeks, months and years. A quick deflection now simply to get out of the headlines, could mean a whole heap of trouble in future. Planning ahead will always help and can avoid such pitfalls, as will a keen understanding of where the thinking of politicians is at.

The default position can be to cave in quickly whilst formulating a response that looks strong and shows the organisation is completely on top of the problem. Under those circumstances, the main discussion always seems to focus on how to say ‘sorry’ and to show how much you really mean it. This then involves ‘action’ to demonstrate strength of leadership aimed at rebuilding the trust of the audience.

The trouble is that normal, considered decision-making processes can go out of the window during a crisis. Larger groups of advisers are brought in and the deadlines involved can be set simply by how loud a journalist shouts or how many times they call, rather than the needs of the organisation.

There is no getting away from senior level leadership and disrupted ‘normal operations’. Silence is not an option. Facebook’s recent strategy is a classic of this approach – they were seen not to be addressing the issues of data, lost control of what was being discussed before then eventually having to decide what to say, but largely through newspaper ads.

Could this approach impact on its numbers of users? Quite possibly. Could the approach put off advertisers? Quite possibly? Could the approach lead to greater scrutiny by regulators and politicians? Yes.

There is no alternative to being seen as in control of the issue and dealing with it but organisations can stand up for what you have done if they really believe that the actions have been correct. When new information comes to light then people, just as much as organisations, can change. Simply changing when you get ‘found out’ doesn’t offer the same level of reputation protection.

There are examples of organisations who make impressive sounding gestures, often under such circumstances, about their behaviour only to have to back down later. These often relate to staff and organisations forget that there are legal and regulatory requirements that influence what they can do.

When these added complications emerge, this can simply extend the life time of the story and brings more scrutiny with it, and in the worst circumstances brings doubt to what organisations are saying.

It should not be forgotten that the media and politicians will come back again at stories and if they find that you haven’t delivered on any earlier promises, they will be even stronger the second time around.

Being strong does not mean ignoring criticism but it can involve a robust defence of your actions. It does not necessarily mean instantly blaming people or behaviours, which until the day before, had been perfectly acceptable.

None of that is easy but it can be the best long term option. It can deliver respect from audiences, not least staff, and in a political sense shows government that you are not prepared to be pushed around. That could come in handy in the future….

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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