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When Protecting Your Reputation, Speed Kills

The below article originally appeared in the Des Moines Business Record.

It’s no longer a 24-hour news cycle. Fueled by an insatiable appetite for scandal and by new media more than capable of satisfying the hunger, today’s news is minute-to-minute.

This creates a false sense of security for those public figures and brands facing down bad PR. It’s never been more tempting to adopt an “ignore it and it’ll blow over” philosophy.

But, as evidenced by three recent cases, that is a dangerous mentality. In 2011, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Justin Bieber each learned that nothing slows the news cycle faster than a scandal. Taken together, their cases provide the perfect continuum of how to and how not to react in a media crisis.

Taking a direct shot to his wholesome image, 17-year-old pop star Bieber was at once named the father of an unborn baby and the defendant in a paternity lawsuit.

Immediately, Bieber’s team put him in front of the cameras. Comfortable in the limelight, he not only denied paternity and the alleged circumstances surrounding the baby’s conception with poise, he also explained why the accusations were impossible.

Bieber was the only one doing the talking. There were no spokespeople or lawyers. And, he took the moral high-road, never disparaging the pregnant accuser.

The result? Bieber’s wholesome reputation remained intact and he closed out 2011 as the first solo artist to have three No. 1 albums before the age of 18.

On the opposite end of the continuum we find Herman Cain. Even with ample warning of the accusations about to plague his presidential campaign, Cain’s team did not develop a plan. There was no strategy for how to mitigate the reputational damage posed to him by several sexual harassment accusers – and it showed as the accusations floated in the media for days, unanswered by Cain.

What Cain lacked in preparedness he made up for in spokespeople. When he wasn’t talking – and sometimes even when he was – his lawyer, his campaign manager or his wife was also going on the record. This may have been acceptable if the team was consistent. They were not.

Cain also attacked his accusers. Doing so made Cain the all-too-familiar villain in another classic “blame the victim” storyline.

The result? A suspended bid for the White House and a reputation damaged, most likely beyond restoration.

Rick Perry falls somewhere in the middle of our continuum. After a debate gaffe made him the most watched YouTube video for two days running, the presidential candidate faced a tidal wave of embarrassment. Like Cain, Perry was without a plan, mainly because no one expected this kind public misstep from a practiced and competent candidate.

Unlike Cain, however, Perry sprang into action immediately. He changed course on his campaign trail to sit down with as many major media as would have him. In a situation like his, Perry knew, speed kills.

More important than Perry’s quickness was the spirit of his message. With self-deprecation and humor, he admitted his mistake and reassured voters that he understood the problems of the country and as his proposals for fixing them.

Like Bieber, Perry did his own talking. There was no campaign manager making excuses for him or attempting to retell the story.

The result?  A candidate who bought critical time to rehabilitate himself in the successive debates.

Each of these cases proves that when your integrity is questioned, you have to react immediately. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teen heartthrob, a Governor, a pizza magnate, or a corporate brand. You need to quickly assess the facts and be consistent in your messaging. And most importantly, you need to be as aggressive, if not more, than the media outlets who will spin this story with or without your input.


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