Tue 01 Feb 2011

2010 has been a year when we have seen some pretty impressive reputations smashed.
Public Relations is the art of managing and improving a company’s reputation.  This is not done in a vacuum.  Harold Macmillan famously observed that the biggest threat to any statesman was, “Events, my dear boy, events.”  The same is true of PR.  “Stuff” happens which is beyond anyone’s control.  What really matters is how an organisation or individual reacts.

The tumultuous oil spill in Louisiana saw millions of gallons of crude oil leak out into the sea and many more millions of dollars spent in various efforts to halt the environmental disaster it produced.  As has been noted in this column before, BP was hung out to dry for corner-cutting errors for which it was not solely to blame.  Of all those who could have been in the firing line, Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, rightly so stood atop the hill wearing steel underpants to attract the lightning – and attract it he most certainly did.  Rarely has such a senior business person contributed so consciously to his own corporate demise for the sake of those around him.
Verdict:  Oil spills are as bad as it gets for the reputation of petroleum producers.  BP’s reputation has been hammered, but the effect would have been far greater had the boss not been at the front of the firing line – over and over again.

Early in 2010, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable were widely seen as somewhat akin to Prince Arthur and Merlin as seen on the BBC on Saturday evenings.  One was young, thrusting and determined to do good; the other wise beyond accounting with an almost mystical understanding of economics.  Now in power, the Liberal Democrat leader is reviled by many who voted for his party and the Business Secretary is seen as a ditherer, caught between government policy and instinctive principle.  Were there to be an election tomorrow the Lib Dems could conceivably receive a horrendous backlash from the public.

Verdict:  Reputations nurtured in opposition are made more vulnerable by the reality of power.  Might the Lib Dems have been better served by refusing the formal taste of power they craved and forcing the Conservatives to form a minority government, voting for the policies they supported and against those they could not stomach – like tuition fees?  Now their Holy Grail of electoral reform might be rejected by the public if only as a way of punishing the party for its performance in government.

Having said that the Lib Dems have had a bad year, governments everywhere have lived in terror of the next tranche of revelations from Wikileaks.   But for journalists it has given a run of excellent stories!    However, the argument that diplomats and politicians have to be able to make and keep confidences seems to be a given.  If Wikileaks had uncovered great corruption or covert attempts to destabilise apparently friendly governments that would be a service to us all.  Most of the website’s revelations seem more akin to playground gossip about who likes whom and who is the smelliest!

Verdict:  A lesson for us all to protect our future reputations, never commit to paper that which you would not wish to see in print later. 

If choosing a World Cup venue is more of a dark conspiracy than a public talent contest, we might be tempted to see parallels with “X-Factor.”  The show relies heavily on blanket coverage in the tabloid papers and the PR team responsible certainly do a good job.  However, when allegations of unheralded rule changes, judges refusing to pick between contestants and the public vote being ignored start stealing the headlines, something needs to be done.  Simon Cowell’s open letter to the newspapers last month met the allegations head on.  When a producer and impresario is moved to write, “I do want to assure people that the show is definitely not fixed,” one can tell he is concerned about public perceptions.

Verdict:  If public trust in the fairness of the competition wavers, “X-Factor” is finished.  With his highly attuned sense of the public mood Simon Cowell moved quickly to diffuse a growing sense of disquiet and protect the show’s reputation.  Transparency is key; if people are to believe what they see they have to see enough for it to be believable.

 The great Celtic Tiger of Ireland has metamorphosed into a mangy one-eyed stray cat before our very eyes.  The country’s economy, once the envy of Northern Europe, is now a basket case.  Economists and journalists have a shared love of acronyms.  2009’s was the fast-emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India & China) economies.  2011’s will be PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece & Spain).  Nowhere does a loss of reputation have greater impact than in the world of government lending where a fall from grace can be swiftly accompanied by a worsened credit rating, every country’s biggest nightmare.

Verdict:  Tying up national wealth in a property boom is a form of economic Russian (or in this case American or Irish) Roulette.  It will take years, perhaps decades, for Ireland’s reputation for substantial economic potential to be restored.  That which is hard won is often so easily lost.
The drawn-out but nonetheless dramatic rescue of thirty-three Chilean miners is a classic example of how a great headline can rest remarkably easily above a more damning story.  Serious and substantial questions have been raised about safety conditions and corruption but they have been drowned out by the clamour of support and sympathy for the miners and the success of their retrieval.  Chile’s President successfully exploited what could have been a disaster to bring down a government and which has instead seen his popularity soar. 

Verdict:  There is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time.  The trick is to identify where and when it is.

Ricky Ponting and Cricket Australia, feared for so long by the world have been brought so very low by England in the Ashes series.  England’s reputation for wilting in the antipodean sun has been completely replaced with an image of ruthless efficiency, peerless skill and relentless hard work, a bit like.. well, a bit like the Australians used to have.

Verdict:  No advice, no suggestions and no sympathy.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

Surprising as it might sound, the cornerstone of good public relations is truth.  Tell lies, exaggerate your capabilities and performance and you will eventually come unstuck.  The American comedian and business coach, Michael Lapoce said, “Reputation is character minus what you've been caught doing.”  That way lies sleepless nights.  The best way not to get caught, and thus to lose your reputation, is not to do the bad stuff in the first place.  As Socrates put it, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.”  In modern parlance, if you talk the talk you have to walk the walk and if you fail to do so, you might find your legs disappearing out from beneath you.

Back to all articles