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An unfortunate pepper spraying incident at University of California, Davis from 2011 has recently returned to the headlines. Ironically, this occurred when the media learned of efforts by the university to scrub the incident and its volatile images from the internet. In attempting to improve search results for the university, the effort has instead shone a light on the challenges of reputation management in today’s world.
In a situation like the pepper spray incident, a crucial ingredient in successful reputation management can be found in the immediate crisis management response. Any crisis has the potential to harm an organization’s long term reputation, but a crisis that is well-managed will likely do much less harm. In responding to the crisis incident, an organization has the opportunity to sow the seeds for successful reputation management.
It is at this point that accuracy and transparency are crucial, as well as ownership of the issue to the extent possible given the likelihood of lawsuits or investigations by regulatory bodies. What can be said about efforts and outcomes to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again? Emerging from the incident, it may even be appropriate to share lessons learned in the context of benefiting the broader industry as well as the organization going forward. This begins the shift away from crisis management and towards reputation management and restoration.
The incident is now in the rear view mirror. However, thanks to search engines and the infallible memory of the web, it can still be seen. The key is to keep moving forward, so that the incident is seen in a broadening context. Making sure the forward view contains images and content that reflect a positive reputation is a sound strategy.
Attempting to scrub an incident from the record will be seen, at best, as a fruitless game of whack-a-mole. There’s a reason you never see a political candidate playing this frantic game during their frequent state fair visits. No one looks good doing it.
An engineer by trade and with more than 20 years of communications experience, Chris Jones leads crisis preparation and response teams for many of Pierpont's clients. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn.