Posted January 15, 2008 12:47 pm by with 32 comments

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It has been an interesting week for blogger faux pas. Search Engine Land found itself taking flak for it’s sensational post about obtaining links from Wired’s wiki. Meanwhile, Gizmodo suffered at the hands of its peers for its CES television monitor prank. Both serve as examples of how it’s sometimes impossible to look ahead to the future and determine what the consequences of our actions will be. It’s this lack of prophetic wisdom that pretty much guarantees that despite your best efforts to protect your online reputation from harm, at some point your good name will come under fire.

How you handle the fall-out will pretty much determine how your stakeholders–in this case, readers and fellow bloggers–will adjust their perception of your brand.

Two Attacks, Two Very Different Responses

For Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan chose what I would obviously call the “radically transparent” option with his statement, which in part read:

The article that we posted, with my approval, was irresponsible, both for failing to check on the situation properly, exposing the system to spammers, and encouraging spamming itself….I simply cannot apologize enough for the mess the article made over there…For me to have contributed to the industry’s reputation problem was wrong. To everyone in it, my apologies.

In my opinion, Danny demonstrated the three traits that I believe are important when apologizing for a reputation-damaging mistake: sincerity, transparency, and consistency.

Here’s a recap of what I’ve said about these qualities:

  • Sincerity. If you’re called out for your past practices, simply saying “sorry” is not enough, if you’ve not changed the associated behavior. While you may appease one critic, many others will be standing by. And, should you continue to make the same mistakes, your critics will feel duped by your false apology and likely attack with greater fervor.
  • Transparency. Once you’ve realized the error of your ways and decided to make a change for the better, you’ll need to admit your mistakes and demonstrate why your critics should believe you have changed. Whether it’s an open letter to your customers, an interview with your critics, or your own company blog post, it’s important to be open and honest about your mistakes and future plans.
  • Consistency. If you’ve made just one screw-up, chances are you’ll be able to make amends with just one single action. However, if your company has built a reputation for one mistake after another, it will take a lot more to convince your detractors that you have changed your spots. Your sincerity and transparency will buy you a reprieve and some breathing-room, but it’s your consistency in your future actions that will change the ongoing perception of your critics.

On the other hand, Gizmodo’s Brian Lam’s response was more defensive–even defiant. Instead of simply apologizing and admitting their mistake, Lam chose to justify the actions of Gizmodo’s bloggers, and attempted to spin the incident into something that would be a positive influence on the blog’s reputation. In fact, Lam’s response is typical of how many of us–me included–would likely respond to a crisis–he became defensive:

A Gizmodo writer has been banned from CES for a prank. But when I see some fellow press damning us for the joke, I feel sorry for them: When did journalists become the protectors of corporations? When did this industry, defined by pranksters like Woz, get so serious and in-the-pocket of big business? This is totally pathetic…In closing, I will fill you in on our little secret: TVs turn back on when you press the power button a second time. So, I can assure you, everything is going to be OK once the companies find their clickers between the couch cushions of our prank and your obedience.

You could argue that Lam’s response is appropriate and in keeping with the edgy image that Gizmodo presents. I wouldn’t be in that camp, but that’s just my opinion.

So, what can we learn from these recent reputation crises? Well, apart from learning that we should be slow to judge the actions of others–remember hindsight is 20/20–we can use the incidents to help us think about preparing our own crisis communication plan.

Five Steps for Responding to a Reputation Crisis

Here are five steps to consider, the next time a blunder threatens your reputation. I’ll use the two blogs as a case study, but these steps apply to any business or individual.

1. A response from the top

Even though Danny Sullivan was not the one who personally wrote the Wired article, he did approve it and he is the “name” behind the Search Engine Land brand. Like Danny’s personal apology, your response should be from the top. When your reputation is under fire, you shouldn’t send out a scape-goat.

2. Admit your mistakes and apologize

While Lam did respond personally on Gizmodo, he wasn’t prepared to eat humble pie. Meanwhile, Sullivan admitted the site’s screw-up and apologized profusely. Your customers want you to admit you messed-up–denying your guilt doesn’t make it disappear.

3. Host the conversation

Both Gizmodo and Search Engine Land realized that the discussion was taking place outside of their web site. What they both needed to do was join the conversation, and provide their own location for the discussion. When your reputation comes under fire, trying to respond to every blog post or forum comment can be akin to a game of “whack-a-mole.” Instead, bring the conversation to your door step. Sure, it shines a brighter spotlight on the incident, but it at least gives you a central location for the discussion.

4. Seek resolution

When you make a mistake, just apologizing is not enough. You need to fix the problem–and quickly. Danny shared with his readers the steps he took to do just that…

Wired’s Editor In Chief, Evan Hansen, contacted me on Friday several hours after we initially published, not out of anger, but to understand more about the issues we were raising. When I realized what a mess my approval of the article had caused, I apologized for the hassle. Both parties decided that the original article should stay up. Wired was happy with my suggestion that I add a note making it clear that we were not asking people to spam them.

5. Turn detractors into evangelists

You’d probably agree that Lam’s statement did very little to acquiesce the criticisms of those attacking Gizmodo. Maybe Gizmodo’s loyal readers were happy with the defiant response, but it’s unlikely Lam won the support and praise of the exhibitors at CES, or the bloggers that criticized the stunt.

While it’s still early days, it appears that Search Engine Land will be able to put the incident firmly behind it. Danny addressed the public statements of his peers, and I’m sure that he’s also personally contacted those that were disappointed by the original post.

If you make a reputation-damaging mistake, you too should ensure that you reach out to those affected and seek resolution with them. You won’t be able to make amends with everyone, but you should be willing to try.

Sincerity, Transparency, and Consistency

OK, so the five steps above will not, and cannot, apply to every reputation crisis that your brand might encounter. However, they’re a good foundation, and perhaps something you can refer back to, the next time you face a reputation misstep. If the five steps are too much to remember, then just memorize these three words: sincerity, transparency, and consistency. Base your crisis communication around these three words, and you’ll likely recover from even the severest mistakes.