Reputation Recovery

When you are more virtuous than your reputation would suggest, you have a communications problem.

When your reputation for virtue exceeds the facts on the ground, you have a ticking business problem.

When Image and Reality Part Ways

When you have a communications problem, the communications team should hire a PR firm. Most firms do this.

But in the second case – where the reputation is better than the truth – most firms do not do what they should. They don’t even thank their lucky stars for having a better reputation than they deserve.

Instead, they begin to believe the hype.

Then one day, It Happens. The subsidiary defaults. The pipeline springs a leak. Animal byproducts show up in the food. Someone comes forward to testify.

Let’s be clear. These things just kind of seem to happen more often to the non-virtuous than to the virtuous firm. If the event truly is an anomaly, it doesn’t last on the front page. Acts of god don’t make good news for long.

But what about the non-virtuous firm?

When Disclosures Accelerate

When it turns out the smoke really did indicate fire, the non-virtuous firm all too often behaves predictably.  Having believed their undeserved hype about being virtuous, they then do what the virtuous firms did – they hire a PR firm.

Which is all too often the wrong thing to do – and hardly ever the main thing to do.

In an interesting display of PR sensitivity,  BP chose to hire Dick Cheney’s former campaign press secretary as head of PR, and a Wall Street PR firm as outside advisors.

Of course, there is a role for communications experts even in a crisis. With multiple constitutencies and tons of experience at keeping things secret, perhaps it made sense for Penn State to hire two outside PR firms.

But most non-virtuous firms aren’t looking for technical expertise; they’re looking to follow the lead of Muammar Gadaffi in seeking spin.

PR: a Delicate Balance

It cannot be an easy thing to tell clients seeking spin that the solution is to become virtuous. Clients want virtue now, and backdated if possible, thank you very much.

In such a milieu, the temptation for ambulance chasing is high. How can you keep on teaching virtue when the clients are paying you to shut up and stop the pain?

Yet that is what must be done. Arthur Page, the poster child for “good” public relations, had it right. He had a list of seven principles, the first of which was “tell the truth.” What a concept.

He also said that public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it. In other words, if you are virtuous, you’re not going to have much of a problem explaining crises.

Recovering Virtue

The fallen firm wants to know what they can do now to recover. After all, they always sought fast fixes in the past, and they worked. But there simply is no fast route to virtue recovery if you’re coming from a history of un-virtuous behavior.

At a personal level, it’s conceivable that someone could have an instant conversion and become virtuous, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it – most conversions I have seen have come through pain and hard work.

And at a corporate level? Fuggedabout it. The fastest route to serious change is to change all the top leadership, and even then you’ve got habits, policies and cultures to change. Minimum 6-12 months, and I can’t off-hand think of an example where change has happened that fast.

Non-virtuous leaders who’ve been caught with their pants down don’t want to hear it, but the best way to handle crises is to prevent them happening in the first place. The best way to be trusted is to be trustworthy.

Spin is not the solution; spin is the problem.

You may not be able to change by tomorrow, but you can always start the journey today.





Hire for Trustingness, Train for Trustworthiness

You may know the HR saying, ‘Hire for attitude, train for skills.’ Our own Sandy Styer reminded me of that the other day.

The reminder came at an opportune time, as I was reading Eric Uslaner’s  excellent 2002 book The Moral Foundations of Trust, a book I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read until now.

I’ve written before that trust is an asymmetrical relationship between one who trusts, and one who is trusted. (Most recently, in Why Trust is Assymmetrical, and What that Means for Trust Strategies).

Since 2000, when The Trusted Advisor came out, I have autographed my books with the simple phrase, “May you trust—and be trusted.” They are not the same thing.

Trust, Trustworthiness, and Trusting

Uslaner writes mainly about trust. Steven Covey Jr writes mainly about trusting. I have tended to write mainly about trustworthiness, and something about the interplay between the two (see The Dance of Trust.)

But I have to confess, the insight expressed in the title of this blog didn’t really come to me until I connected the HR insight and Uslaner’s work.

Uslaner eloquently makes the point that there are two kinds of trust. There is the kind you read about every day in surveys and headlines about ‘trust in Wall Street down last month,’ or ‘most trusted brands decline compared to internet,’ or ‘Obama’s trust rating down 10 points in 3 weeks.’   That kind of trust is pretty short-term, situational, and closely resembles things like reputation, brand image and customer loyalty.

There is another kind of trust: what the academics call social trust. That kind of trust is literally learned at home in our childhood. It doesn’t change rapidly or easily, is maintained in the face of specific events; it is, as Uslaner so correctly claims, in my humble opinion, a moral value. And it is that kind of trust–or its absence–that undergirds civil society. 

Hire for Trustingness, and Train for Trustworthiness

How does one become trusted as an advisor, a salesperson, and internal advisor, a consultant? The short answer is: be trustworthy. How do you do that? Read my blogs and articles for the last 2-3 years, or buy my books.

But how do you create an organization that lives on trust? How do you create a trustworthy people-creating organization? How do you lead and manage a business that runs itself on trust principles

There are a number of answers, but it may be that number one in that list is: hire people who learned that deeper attitudinal moral value of trust at the age of 3 or 4. Hire trusting people. Hire people who know how to trust, and are not afraid to do so.

Hire people who treat trustingness as a moral value. Because that is hard to teach.

Get an organization full of high-trusting people, and you have amazing potential. Such people can quickly ‘get’ the skills of trustworthiness. By being surrounded by others they trust and who trust them, they get a lot done.

By contrast, high-trusting people may not be changed by low-trust organizations—but they’ll leave.  And low-trust people likewise may not be changed by high-trust organizations; but they’ll be a drag on things.

I’ll be writing much more on this. For now, the catch-phrase is:

Hire for trustingness, train for trustworthiness.