How to Rebuild a Damaged Reputation

No matter the source of your reputational hit, it’s important to understand your options—and why you can only do so much about Google.

Not everyone has a perfect professional track record. Maybe a failed initiative or a connection to a corrupt organization earlier in your career is holding you back, or perhaps a criminal record is proving hard to get past.

Or maybe you were simply inexperienced and needed time to build your leadership skills, like Steve Jobs, who famously lost his leadership role with Apple only to dramatically return a decade later as a more seasoned captain.

And if your association is dealing with a reputational hit of its own? All the worse.

Jonathan Coad, author of the forthcoming book ‌Reputation Matters: How to Protect Your Professional Reputation, noted in an interview that the way we perceive reputations as a whole has shifted in the digital era. But they still fundamentally stick to a truism credited to Warren Buffett (and mentioned by Coad in the introduction to his book): “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Often, leaders are a big part of organizational reputations, though perhaps not a defining part. A 2020 study by Weber Shandwick found that 87 percent of companies had a strong reputation, higher than that of CEOs, who had 82 percent approval. And while leaders have a role in reputation—with 58 percent of company reputation attributed to an organization’s leader—an array of factors can have an impact, including product quality, employee quality, the organization’s approach to privacy, and industry leadership.

Understanding Media’s Role in Reputation

To solve for a reputational hit, it’s important to understand how they happen in the first place—including in the media, which can refract how the public perceives a situation.

“With the massive change brought about by the advent of the electronic media, for anyone in a leadership role today, the importance both of their reputation and that of their company cannot be overstated,” Coad said.

Social media and online reviews (think comments on Glassdoor) get a lot of the credit and blame for this, but Coad noted that negative media coverage from more traditional sources can be more damaging.

“The impact of social media on the fortunes of commercial entities is modest compared to that of the commercial media in the form of the newspapers and broadcasters,” he said.

This can be seen in mainstream news stories. Take the lengthy trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which largely played out on social media—even though the legal battle itself was over a newspaper article that Heard wrote.

(On the other hand, Coad noted that positive media coverage, potentially driven by public relations, could give you a boost.)

Bounce Back From a Reputational Hit

The clear solution to dealing with reputational failings is to avoid being put into them in the first place. But if that’s not a solution, there may be other remedies available.

For example, if unflattering or private personal information is being shared online, you can request that your information be removed from Google Search, though the company sets limits with the public record. News articles are harder to remove than, say, blog posts, and can require expensive reputation management services. (In some countries, such as those in the European Union, you do have additional options, such as the “right to be forgotten” under the General Data Protection Regulation.)

“Some online stains are very difficult to erase,” Coad said.

Perhaps a more effective route is something that leadership expert Keith Wyche explained in an Inc. article—an honest, humble approach, in which you look inward to admit your mistakes.

“I call it taking a career selfie: Go back, revisit the situation, and find out what went wrong and what you should have done differently,” Wyche told the outlet. “I tell people that I am inspired by my successes, but I learn from my failures.”

If you’re bouncing back from mistakes, be willing to put in the work. That’s your best chance to reach new heights in your career.

(Andrii Yalanskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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