The litany of executives, public figures, and politicians whose careers have unraveled because of a discriminatory statement, extramarital affair, crime, or even controversial personal beliefs, shows just how easy it is to fall. But when controversy or disaster strikes, you don't necessarily have to go down permanently. America loves to give second chances--but whether you get one depends heavily on how you deal with your scandal.
If you're a leader fighting for a second chance, Eric Schiffer, reputation-management expert and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, is here to help. His Irvine, California-based company, which ranked #81 on the 2012 Inc. 5000, helps clients including prominent politicians, A-list celebrities, and some of the wealthiest men and women in the world. (Schiffer declined to name any of Reputation Management's clients.)
Schiffer says leaders fall because they don't realize their own responsibility. As a CEO, everything they do and say matters. When a CEO forgets about that aspect of their job, things can go very badly. "Leaders have a responsibility--they carry with them more gravitas and their words have a lot more power," he says. "They have an obligation because of that power to be more sensitive and meticulous in how they communicate to the public, customers, and others who will amplify that message. To the extent to which they want to be involved in politics or engage in controversial issues, they do it many times at their own peril. Not unlike taking a grenade, pulling out the pin, and leaving it on their desk."
If you maneuver correctly when what Schiffer calls the "maelstrom of fury" is upon you, you can return things to normal. "It comes down to authenticity, being a real person, and taking responsibility. Forget all the corporate stuff, business is people," he says. "At the root, people identify with people who are genuine, open, and come from good intentions. People realize people make mistakes and, especially in America, the public is forgiving."
Below, check out the steps Schiffer says you need to take after you make a serious mistake, get swept up in controversy, or get into legal trouble.
Establish your goals.
Say you've publicly expressed your views on political or social issues, and now you're suffering a backlash. Immediately you must figure out what's most important to you--your position in your company or furthering your political agenda. "The leader's first move is to determine what's their goal. Do they want to use their success and position as a platform for secondary gain on a political, religious, or controversial [topic]? Are they willing to pay the price?"
If you decide to continue espousing unpopular opinions and the situation spins out of control, you need to be willing to retreat and make amends, Schiffer says. "In my experience, leaders don't think of these things before the error is made. Part of the process is therapeutic. It's about making a clear distinction on what matters to them at the time, what caused all of this. Make sure it doesn't happen again, and be clean and clear with what we will decide upon, because it needs to be authentic and real."
Decide on a strategy and stick to it.
Once you know what you want from the situation, it's time to hammer out a plan. "Next, you have to decide on a strategy and be very consistent with that strategy," he says. "To me, it's all about accepting responsibility and stating what you have learned. Then you need to share that insight and try to gain forgiveness through making an apology."
This aspect cannot be stressed enough. You cannot let this kind of situation snowball. "Speed matters. You have to move quickly and get in front of it as fast as possible. Then you need to be in front of the decision makers who are deciding your fate--customers, clients, board members, partners--and you need one-on-one communication with them about how you're accepting responsibility and correcting it," Schiffer says. "This has to happen, or else the forces will make your fate. If you don't, the decision makers will be more interested in saving their own reputations and protecting their own turf."
Do a deep clean.
Once you have executed your plan and gained forgiveness, it's time to reinvigorate your reputation and brush the dirt off your shoulder. "After the fury, it's all about cleanup. We focus on the positive things the individual has done, highlighting the good and putting it all in perspective," Schiffer says. "That may mean leveraging the preexisting good things and fine works the executive has done, influencing with our technology, and utilizing our veteran strategists on the Web." If it's a legal problem, Schiffer says, he has a team of media-savvy attorneys to help leaders get out of trouble. "It all requires meticulous care and precision. You have to be extremely persuasive and organic."