Brand is a fragile thing. Any brand. Your brand.

Who needs trouble, like having to defend yourself and your company if someone mistakenly (or, also possible, intentionally) ties your brand to a scandal, even though there is no actual connection.

But the easiest way to find yourself on the outs when it comes to brand damage is when you are tied to something, because you happen to be doing business with the perpetrator.

Before making business arrangements, let us take a moment to praise transparency, whether someone offers it or you do some mining to find it yourself.

There is a mass of examples of companies and business figures that have sunk deep into ignominy and have become a toxic presence, tainting all connected--sometimes for good reasons and other times, perhaps not. Look at stories about Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, Facebook, or anyone associated with the college admission scandals.

Practically every week brings a new bout of shame, fueled by hyperactive media that needs to court audiences, social media where so many want to demonstrate their moral superiority, and the genuine feelings of large segments of the public that cannot believe so many shocking things continue to happen. After all, what would happen to them if they did something equivalent? Probably immediate prosecution and quick jailing.

It is the popular anger--not the trendy social shaming, but the deep resentment among the vast majority of people who know they're expected to behave better--that is the danger. So what if you and your company did nothing in conjunction with whatever has shocked the collective conscience? You had something to do with the suspected perpetrators (because the public often doesn't have time for final proof or nuance). That makes you culpable.

Let's assume for a moment that you really did nothing wrong. But your company might have been a vendor. Perhaps you had a dinner once with a questionable person and landed in a picture with them. A joint venture publicly ties your firm's name with something that later falls into disrepute.

Once the scandal breaks and the connection is made, undoing is difficult. You can try. For example, there was a study from researchers at the University of Colorado, Denver; Bentley University; and Northeastern University, published by the American Accounting Association, showing that auditors with clients that get into a public mess either sharply increase their fees or drop the company. The risk is too much.

However, the link remains. Public attention does wane, but there are some problems that will always appear in search results and media. A company or businessperson may never be able to walk away from it. (In many cases, they shouldn't be able to.) If you're unlucky, the connection to you and yours is also preserved.

There's nothing new about the idea of vetting business partners, although it does seem to be honored more in the breach than embrace. Normally, you do so to make sure you don't get burned in an obvious way. That might mean a credit check on a new vendor or customer, careful analysis of a contract, and checking with others who had done business with them.

What you might consider is an additional depth of vetting. What is the ethical reputation of a person or business? How do they treat workers or suppliers? Are there rumors that keep circulated by those traveling the same circles? Do you get an uncomfortable feeling during feelings with representatives? Any offers or suggestions that seem mildly, or wildly, inappropriate? Signs of sexism or racism that should be embarrassing?

You might make the wrong call at times, and that's fine. This isn't a public accusation or legal action, just a choice to either do business or not. But my experience is that more often than not you'll avoid something you will want no part of. Certainly not as a footnote to a scandal.

Published on: Jan 22, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.