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“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

Warren Buffett’s famous quote has never been more relevant than in the age of social media. Within minutes of releasing a controversial statement or making a public mistake, you can be tried and condemned by the court of public opinion via scathing memes and Twitter backlash. Will Smith and P&O Ferries are just two recent high-profile examples of this.

But everybody makes mistakes — so how can people and businesses recover from public errors of judgement and restore their reputations? Written By Nick Gold (Pictured ), MD, Speakers Corner 

The impact of a public gaffe

The direct fallout from a salacious rumour or public indiscretion can be significant. Employees may be left jobless (in the case of P&O Ferries, for example), impacting their financial and emotional wellbeing. Individuals may see sponsorship deals and partnerships withdrawn. Businesses can collapse; careers can be destroyed.

A dramatic shift in public perception isn’t something you can wrap up and walk away from with a simple apology. Critically, you’ll never know how far the damage extends. It will continue to come in different and unexpected ways — so whatever gets thrown at you, you need to be able to deal with it.

Negative media attention is an inherent risk of any kind of public success. When you make a mistake, this can be amplified. And because there’s no way to know how many people have been affected, there’s only one way to deal with the fallout: own your mistake.

Why your initial reaction is important

When a public outcry puts you in the spotlight, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure of giving a kneejerk response. But trying to tackle the issue quickly may dilute the sincerity of your apology, digging you into a deeper hole.

Instead, it’s essential to take the time to understand and acknowledge the effects of your mistake. Don’t simply assume you have all the answers; speak to the people who have been directly affected and find out how you can make reparations. When you know how best to redeem yourself or your business, you can offer a sincere, public apology.

Owning your mistake with openness and vulnerability is the best way to demonstrate sincerity in your response. By starting with sincerity, you can open an agreeable public discourse that puts you and your business in a more positive light.

The road to redemption

Redemption is similar to recovering from an injury. If you pull a muscle or sprain a ligament, you could still feasibly attempt to play the next game. But ultimately it’s better for you — and your team — if you take time off to rehabilitate yourself, and return stronger when the injury has healed.

That means you can’t expect an instant recovery following your initial apology. It takes time to rebuild relationships and repair damage. But there are some things you can do to speed up the process.

  • Don’t make excuses or try to justify your actions — the worst phrase you can use is, “I’m sorry, but…”
  • Don’t be overly gushy — people can sense false sincerity, and may treat your apology with suspicion
  • Bring your team together — if you’re trying to redeem a business, it’s important to get your employees onside from the start, so you can approach the problem with unity.

Social media: a help or a hindrance?

Social media is at the heart of many public gaffes. Whether it’s an ill-judged tweet or the lightning-fast spread of viral videos, social media is where many mistakes are judged most harshly.

The truth is that people have already made their minds up about what you’ve done. They have opinions about who you are, how you’re acting, and what you’ve done. And you can’t please everyone. In fact, the more you try to appeal to the masses, the more you can actually reduce the sincerity of what you’re trying to say. Offering half-formed or impulsive apologies on social media can feed into this.

So start with the people who have been directly affected by your mistake. Make sure they’re content with your response. If the social media backlash feels like a lot to deal with, consider coming off social media altogether while you handle the direct damage.

Remember: you’re playing the long game. You have to take the pain in the short-term, but you don’t have to react to the noise around you.

The power of redemptive storytelling

Storytelling is the most powerful tool available to anyone trying to rebuild their reputation after a high-profile gaffe. That’s because the best way to get people on your side is to share your journey with them, and bring them along for the ride.

The more we hear someone’s story, the more we become immune to the controversial elements and start to empathise with their honesty and openness. It’s one of the reasons people relate to divisive personalities like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Tyson Fury. We don’t expect them to follow a safe, linear storyline — and we admire them for it.

Gerald Ratner and Nick Leeson are two popular after-dinner speakers at Speakers Corner. Their respective falls from grace are a significant talking point in their repertoires. They speak about redemption, and the importance of owning what you’ve done. They understand that their mistakes are now part of who they are.

To this day, they continue to deal with the fallout from their mistakes. But they now understand that the sooner you embrace your failings as well as your successes, the more people will join you on your journey to redemption.

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