Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tiger & Toyota: At-Risk Reputation Management

Tiger Woods is the number one golfer in the world. Toyota is the biggest car company. They each set the standard for excellence in their respective fields. They each enjoyed enviable blue chip reputations. They each dominated their industries and in both cases millions, if not billions of dollars were on the line as they performed.

Yet, within a few months of each other both are now facing unprecedented crises in public confidence. Will it be a permanent fall from grace or just a temporary setback?

As I watch these parallel situations unfold, I can’t help but reflect on what we as school communicators can learn from the Tiger & Toyota scandals. Here are some observations:

Denial is not an option; where there’s smoke there’s surely going to be a firestorm
There were plenty of warning signs that Tiger and Toyota had problems and that it was only a matter of time before the lid would blow. There were mutterings about on-tour trysts by the legendary golfer and internal memos now reveal that Toyota was in denial for months about the real cause of its sticking gas pedals. Instead of decisively confronting those warning signs, both chose to hope they would stay confidential. The lesson here: in today’s microscopic society public figures must presume that their inner most actions will eventually become public. The real question is how that will occur, not whether it will. The number one rule of PR: Do A Good Job! They should have done a good job to clean up their acts and not blindly hope they could keep their poor performance under wraps.

Break your own bad news instead of letting others break it over your head
A delayed response enables and empowers others to frame your message and the resulting commentary. Many will question whether Tiger should have made a huge public apology. Where was the CEO of Toyota during the first few days after the gas pedal recall? Neither came forward to set the record straight. The public needed and wanted a public face to reassure us. In the absence of one, every tabloid, shock jock and self-appointed expert filled the gap.

I recall several years ago when a Southwest Airlines jet overshot the end of the Burbank Airport runway and parked itself a few yards into Hollywood Way. Within 30 minutes, SWA CEO Herb Kelleher was on TV assuming responsibility, telling us they would thoroughly investigate what happened so it wouldn’t happen again, and reassuring us that it was still safe to fly Southwest. Today, Southwest Airlines is the only profitable airline in the country and has retained its rock solid reputation. I fly a lot and my airline of choice is still Southwest.

When you think it’s bottomed out, be prepared to dig a little deeper
You always want yours to be a one-day story. These both seem to be unraveling as soap opera sagas. The traditional and non-traditional news outlets love unfolding human drama. They’re in a feeding frenzy on a steady diet of controversy that extends the coverage and keeps the spotlight glaring with every new angle. The reputations of both Tiger and Toyota have been bleeding out over days and weeks instead of hours. The reason: daily announcements with more and juicier details coming to light . . . so stayed tuned. The lesson here is to get the worst behind you quickly so you can concentrate on damage control and reputation repair. Your goal is to not be the butt of the opening monologue jokes on Jay Leno or David Letterman for more than a day.

In today’s mixed media environment the story takes on a life of its own
In both cases, the public personas thought they could control the message by limiting the message. In the era of citizen-journalists and personality-driven news, every pundit, blogger, commentator, and columnist adds fuel to the firestorm. If you don’t fill the informational vacuum, others will. The story goes viral quickly and you cannot even know far it reaches and gets distorted.

Swift decisive action may be the only way to staunch the bleeding
Tiger benched himself from the PGA tour ostensibly to deal with his sex addiction and salvage his marriage. Toyota shut down the production line ostensibly to focus on repairing the cars it had already sold. In both cases, they did not want to further risk losing consumer confidence by operating their “business as usual.” If Tiger had continued to play golf, but do it poorly because he had lost his concentration then he would have lost the very foundation of his reputation. I have been a loyal 25-year Toyota customer with three of their vehicles parked in my garage. Their top brass need to make sure I can trust what comes off the production line or their reputation for excellence will give way to lingering doubts. I applaud both decisions to shut down. Sometimes when your computer is acting up the best solution is just to re-boot. That’s exactly what Tiger and Toyota decided to do . . . Re-boot their Reputations.

Do something really great to improve the after-taste
Tiger’s first tournament victory will go a long way toward restoring his place in history. The number of Tour wins instead of the number of girlfriends is how he needs to be measured in the history books. Show us you are great for the right reasons Tiger. I'm rooting for you. Toyota missed the chance to use the second highest rated media event, The Super Bowl, to tell its true story. It is only now airing nostalgic reputation-building commercials on TV. The car maker needs to use TV coverage on the highest-rated world stage . . . The Olympic Games . . . as the venue to re-shape and reinforce its reputation. Getting the facts out is one thing, but we all remember stories. Toyota needs satisfied customers to tell its story once again to the world. You can’t tell us you’re safe or great Toyota; you need other believable people to tell us you still are.

There is a big difference between being famous and having a solid reputation. Anyone can be famous, but probably for the wrong reasons. Octo-Mom, the gate-crashing Salahis, and other one-hit wonders come and go with their 15 minutes of fame. Our public schools need to cultivate a deep and pervasive reputation for excellence and they need to nurture, protect and manage that reputation well. School districts are counting on their chief communicators to grow the organization’s reputation especially at the moments of truth when they appear in the white hot glare of the public spotlight.

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