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In the age of cancel culture, more and more individuals find themselves on the receiving end of reputation attacks. Celebrities, politicians, thought leaders, business leaders, academics — and people not in the public eye — are finding themselves suddenly Googling the term “reputation repair.”
What is a reputation attack?
Unlike more passive forms of reputation damage (i.e., being typecast in your career, failing to advocate for yourself in your career or neglecting to advance yourself strategically), when your reputation is under attack from others seeking to harm you, discredit you or negatively impact your career or business, careful tactics must be considered. While your reputation can certainly be tarnished because of your own doing, an unwarranted attack is different.
A reputation attack could look like:
- Online followers bring forward indiscretions or missteps from your past, hoping to show you unfavorably or to highlight inconsistencies in what you promote about yourself or your values (beliefs).
- Colleagues, investors, or others undermine your expertise, knowledge, or experience in your area of focus. For example, they might set out to show that your track record isn’t as impressive as you say, your skills do not align with the results you’ve claimed, or your relationships with others aren’t as strong as you maintain.
- Past employees or business allies call out your professional practices as unethical or harmful to customers. They might assert personal experience seeing or being part of such unethical practices and that it is their remorse that makes them come forward now.
- An ex (spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner) spreads detailed and scandalous rumors to impede your positive image. This one can be particularly painful due to the personal and intimate nature of the relationship that’s now being publicized.
Reputation attacks occur daily, and not just to well-known celebrities. I’ve counseled athletes, rising entrepreneurs, tech gurus, authors, social justice advocates, students, collegiate coaches, professors, physical therapists, as well as high profile executives and entrepreneurs who’ve all found themselves in the cross hairs of public attacks. And it’s not just a U.S. issue — this is a global situation. In recent years my reputation crisis clients have been in Australia, Iceland, the US, Canada, the UAE, and places in between.
What to do in a reputation attack
The moment you realize someone has attacked your name, values, livelihood, and your reputation it can feel like time either stands still or speeds up. Clients have shared that it can also feel like both are happening simultaneously. For this reason, many people in this situation feel they need to react quickly, to shut things down, and “stop the bleeding.” That can often be the worst move to make. Instead, consider these questions and then decide best how to proceed:
1. What is the potential risk?
As clearly and with as much detail as you can, imagine all the ways this attack could discredit, hurt and negatively influence your future. This is likely the most painful step, but by imagining all the potential negative scenarios, you could prepare for unlikely plot lines or anticipate likely events, and you won’t dismiss the attack prematurely or underestimate its potential damage.
2. How visible is the attack?
While a hate-filled email from an unhappy investor certainly has the potential to end up on the front page of the Washington Post, ask yourself how visible the attack is at present. Is the message contained or could it easily be? Is it already spreading through social media channels?
3. Is the source credible?
A posting to your company’s Facebook account calling out your misogynistic leadership style by an unstable employee who was fired is one thing…your ex-business partner suggesting your accounting practices aren’t above board is another. A business partner would be someone you chose to enter a partnership with, vouched for and endorsed, and who would have likely known intimate details about your company practices. They would likely be seen as a credible source on the issue. A disgruntled former employee might not bring the same credibility to their assertions.
4. Does the claim tie to my values?
When a well-known tech giant is outed for infidelity, we question whether family and marital values are things they professed strongly. If so, then the misstep would certainly cause many to distance themselves and question more about them. On the other hand, if the claims being thrown at you do not tie to values you’ve professed, it could be more likely you’ll move through the attack and retain your reputation.
5. Can I separate emotion from fact?
This is another hard one. We need to separate how you feel about the attack or the person attacking you, from what’s happening. Are you hurt that someone is complaining about the décor in your restaurant, or did they show photos of the bugs they found in a salad? There’s a difference. Separate your emotion from what’s happening in the scenario. This might necessitate finding a reputation specialist to help you here. Often, the cycle of questions to navigate get stuck on this one.
6. Do I need to take accountability?
Here, consider what you may have done to bring this on. Did you mistreat past co-workers or investors? Have you been dishonest in your past relationships? Were you less than transparent with your Board? If you played a role in the information being shared, it might be necessary to take personal accountability in a public way. Whether that’s a press conference, letter of apology to the Board, or one-on-one conversation is to be determined.
7. What reparations should I make?
In addition to taking responsibility and accountability for your actions, do you need to make reparations? Is a potential restitution warranted? What other amends could be offered to show you’re taking responsibility without creating more questions or issues. Legal counsel could be very helpful in answering this one.
8. Who else do I need to involve?
Are others mentioned in the attack? If so, what could their position and response be? It might make sense to coordinate responses to ensure consistency. Are there possible adversaries who could run with this story to further its momentum? For example, could your competitors use this attack to discredit your work with clients? If so, proactively addressing it with clients (and in some cases competitors) may be prudent. Furthermore, do you need expert legal, financial or reputation counsel? If the situation doesn’t feel manageable and could damage your career significantly, engaging experts could be warranted.
9. Should I ask others to advocate for me?
This is another tricky one. Often, when someone’s reputation comes under attack, they reach out to their network and ask them to go to bat for them. Whether it’s posting rebuttals to the attack, taking a proactive stance to condemn what’s happened or stand with them at the podium when they profess their innocence, this can stress relationships. You’re asking others to put their own credibility on the line for you and expose themselves to scrutiny and risk. If you do this, ensure these individuals will be comfortable and confident endorsing and supporting you in this (very public) way.
10. What changes can I make to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
Consider what may have led to the events that are unfolding. Were you complacent in how you treated others in the past and are now being criticized for it? Did you stray from your values and your indiscretions are being exposed? Did you partner with individuals you failed to scrutinize? While you can’t go back and change the past, you can set in motion plans to ensure you don’t repeat it. This can help you navigate questions, feel confident in your plans to move through the attack, and protect you from further challenges.
In the past, crisis managers might have advised their clients to “condemn and move on” from high profile and uncomfortable reputation attacks. This advice was designed to minimize focus on the attack and pivot to a new, more positive narrative. Today, in the post #metoo era, this can be an unsuccessful strategy if all aspects aren’t delicately considered. Instead, having a clear understanding of what is happening and carefully planning for a response will ensure that you’ll move forward with focus.