The Alliance Security Council ™
Acute Threats
"Reputation is a Capital Asset and should be treated accordingly."

The Family Wealth Alliance Security Council Interview
with Michelle Jordan, Principal and Founder, Jordan LLC

Visit her website here.

What is reputation management and why has it become so important?

Reputation management is a relatively new term.  It  came into being in part as a result of the new availability of information that once may have remained private, but  today is readily accessible – and legally as part of the public domain.

Reputation matters because it is a Capital Asset, our human capital. It is how others view us and determines who will sit at our table, personallly and professionally. That means we have to think more carefully about what we say and how we act.  In short, take a  more  managed approach to our reputation –   to monitor its performance, protect it from threats and manage it for the long term.

Have private families come under greater risk in the last two to three years and what are their vulnerabilities?

“Their problems make the news, because they are the news”

There is greater risk for private families.  They tend to have a higher profile in the communities in which they work and live so they come under greater scrutiny.  Their problems make the news, because they are the news.   A good name is really the third leg of ouf family’s wealth management stool, along with asset  preservation and legacy.  A hit to our good name can have a severe impact on the other two “legs”, not least financially.  The consequences of a subsequently tainted reputation, deserved or not,  can be far reaching.

An example to illustrate this point concerns a family patriarch who eventually became a client.  The family was living in a small affluent community when a financial catastrophe occurred, initiating a lawsuit from a business partner.   After my client relocated back to his hometown, he was arrested and charged with twenty-eight felony counts.  Despite being a person of rectitude and an outstanding businessman, the arrest made media headlines. Ultimately, the felony counts were dropped but not reported in the press and the erroneous information lived on, including on the Internet.   As a result, his son was not accepted to a private school, the family was denied acceptance to a social club, he could not rent a house and was denied a new business position.  Although he was innocent, the domino effect of events was catastrophic and long-lasting  for him and his family.

Incidentally, Britain’s Parliament  is reviewing a change in the press laws whereby equal space or air time will have to be given to report an acquital as it was to the arrest, or similar.   It’s a slippery slope messing with freedom of the press, but the consequences of a  wrongful allegation that goes public, can have a ruinous affect and be very tough to recover from.

What do we – and our children – need to know about managing our reputations on line and safe Social Media usage?

“Who is managing your reputation, the Internet, the grapevine, or you?”

When it comes to the internet the concept of “reputation management” becomes murkier.  If you don’t manage your reputation, assume somebody else will.

Almost everyone now has an internet presence of some kind and the first thing we do to find out more  is Google or go to a similar search engine.  The saying used to be “you can run, but you can’t hide”.   Now, with the pervasive usage and incredible power of the internet you can’t even run.  In the old days, ‘big brother’ was the Internal Revenue Service; now it’s ‘little brother’, the search engines.  It’s important to realize, however,  that young people view privacy very differently than those who are older.

The Internet is here to stay and it is an astonishing technology that has changed the world in every way.  Instead of wringing our hands about it, better we understand how to use it effectively and safely – including younger members of the family.  The Internet and Social Media are merely information delivery devices.  I don’t feel it’s kids’ behaviors that have changed that much, rather that the methods available to them to “talk” about what are saying, thinking and doing have.  Kids may be high on the techno-savvy scale, but low on the life experience scale.  For adults it’s the inverse. As  adults we  need to better educate  ourselves on these various information delivery devices so we, not just our kids, know how to use them responsibly.  The Golden Rules are don’t post anything that you would not want to have appear in the public domain and understand how to manage security settings so that others cannot control your content — and as a result, your reputation.  I am in the process of  producing a booklet on how to effectively set security settings for the most prevalent social networks such as Facebook and Linked-in.  It’s important information to have and know how to deploy.

What are some reputational minefields when it comes to the Internet?

What goes up, stays up – forever”

One issue is that the law is having  a hard time keeping up with the Internet.  Increasingly recruiters are checking it, but applicants may not be notified.  Technically, they should be and all applicants should be treated in a similar fashion.  The problem is a college recruiter or future employer isn’t going to call to say that your son or daugher hasn’t been accepted because of a Facebook posting.  We do know though that candidates have had their work applications declined,  and students  have had their scholarships rescinded.  Search engines are becoming increasingly sophisticated so it is even more important to remember that what goes up stays up.  Think before you post!

Frivolous lawsuits are another example.  When a lawsuit is filed, the information becomes part of the public domain.  In a wealthy family there may be a member who can be snared into a lawsuit by virtue of his or her “deep pockets,” although they may be completely innocent.  An upstanding family member who is related to someone in a fraud case is implicated as guilty solely by name association.

A reputational minefield we can avoid exacerbating, however, is how we interpret and sort what we see on the Internet.  This means the explosion of information from multiple sources requires prudent evaluation.  I believe patterns of behavior are what matter most.  One questionable posting within the context of others that are positive does not a villain make  – or vice versa.  The internet can be a modern version of the kangaroo court.  Anyone doing research must have the sensitivity and knowledge to draw intelligent conclusions from what they see and read. Everyone’s opinion is not the truth.  And, everything on the internet is neither the truth nor objective.

What are the best approaches to lessen threats?

“Reputational risk should be reviewed and assessed in the same way as financial risk.”

The best way to protect reputation is to get out in front of it.  Most crises are the result of an emerging issue that keeps getting swept under the rug.   It may be awkward to discuss it with family members, but it’s way more embarrassing and painful if it is ignored and explodes.  Reputational risk should be reviewed and assessed in the same way as a family’s financial risk.  On a regular basis, meet with family members to discuss and determine if there is anything that  puts the family reputation at risk:  a new business venture, divorce, joining a new corporate or non-profit board.  Keep asking the questions and if someone wiggles, keep pressing. Also conduct an Internet audit of family members from time to time.  If there’s something lurking out there that a curious stranger can uncover, better for you to know about it too.

Families should consider setting up a “code of conduct” to underscore the importance of protecting its good name.  Each generation should be encouraged to contribute to it.  The code of conduct should serve as a corollary to the family Mission Statement.  Younger  members should be rewarded for adhering to, or advancing, it, not just excelling on the sports field or in the classroom.

Getting out in front of the issue also means having a clear plan in place, a communications strategy which I address later.

What impact can family philanthropy have on reputaiton?

“A strategic approach to philanthropy can protect and enhance a good name.”

Many feel that that seeking public recognition for their philanthropic and other good works will be seen as self-aggrandizing.  While private families may have a preference to be  discrete about their generosities, recognized community and business goodwill can serve as a helpful buffer in times of threat.

I recall an example of two founders of a significant business. Both were charged with insider trading by the SEC.  While in the court of law both were exonerated, in the court of public opinion it was a little different.   Public opinion was far more forgiving of the founder who had a positive presence in the community through community service, foundation support and non-profit leadership, than of the other founder who had been through a messy public divorce and had a reputation for a salacious and racy lifestyle.  It worked out in the end, but enhancing and investing in a positive repution, with elegance and without grandstanding can significantly blunt reputational damage and minimize negative spillover from a bad situation.

What should I do if private information is posted on an Internet website?

“Always try asking – but don’t hold your breath.”

First, it’s highly likely that what you consider “private” actually is not.  This may include your address and unlisted phone number.  At some time you have provided this as information that subsequently ends up in the public domain.  In regard to removing a posting, there is no harm in asking, but don’t hold your breath.  If the posting contravenes the site’s  protocols, they may take it down.  If it’s an opinion or point of  view, then it is highly unlikely.   I know of a prominent businessman whose address and photo of his house turned up on a real estate-type site.  His wife called to say that their daughter was being stalked.  Not quite true, but the posting was removed.  A site can be scrubbed every few months but with the millions of pieces of data traveling through each day, information will likely show up again.

What role can the press play in making/breaking a reputation?

“Rarely is it the crisis itself that tanks a reputation, but the way in which it is handled,  in particular the communication aspects.”

They play an enormous role, for good or bad.  We have seen the tendency to build up our heros then bring them down.  That is part of the celebrity culture in which we live.  If you find yourself in the media crosshairs, call in a crisis communcations expert skilled in working with media – mainline and online.  I advise clients never to take on the press; you will rarely win and once you engage it is very tough to withdraw.  Understand that reporters have a job to do.  Be accessible if the situation calls for that,  but be in control and never lie.  Silence can only get louder and a lie can only get bigger.  Telling the truth does not mean you have to tell it all.  Confidentiality is often imperative particularly if there are legal issues involved and good judgment should always prevail.  Rarely is it the crisis itself  that will tank a reputation or ruin a good name, but the way in which it is handled, particularly the communication aspects.  Just think of Tylenol versus BP.

How should I deal with media if a family member or I should become the focus of negative attention? 

“In moments of crisis, the initiative passes to those who are best prepared.”

Have a simple crisis communications plan in place. It is basic risk mitigation to avoid confusion at a time heads must think clearly and family roles must be clearly defined.  While the situation could range from a high profile DUI or public arrest to a unexpected family tradgedy or untimely death, being prepared remains the name of the game. In advance identify your “risk mitigation” team: likely the head and/or senior member of the family;  legal council; a communications expert; and a respected family friend who can think objectively.  Decide who should serve as the official family spokesperson.  Determine ground rules for confidentiality. In stressful times there is a tendency to talk,  unintentionally feeding  rumor mills that can rapidly spin out of control.  Review this risk mitigation plan at least annually, update it as necessary.  Insure every family member is familiar with it. In time of crisis how you think and behave can impact speed of recovery and the impression left on others.

When it comes to reputation advice, no one has said it better than Warren Buffet:  “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do it differently.” 

 

Michelle Jordan is principal and founder of Jordan LLC, a consulting firm assisting CEOs, senior executives and other leaders with their strategic communication needs. The company, founded in 1998, is based in Southern California and works with clients on both coasts.

Ms. Jordan specializes in issue and reputation management (enhancing, protecting, restoring,) crisis communication, and brand strategy development – an implicit component of reputation management. Representative clients range from CEOs and corporate board directors to entrepreneurs and high net worth individuals, and from non-profit organizations to academic institutions and family-owned businesses.

With over twenty five years in the strategic communications and public relations field, Ms. Jordan has worked throughout North America and in Europe. She served as president of the Los Angeles office of GCI Group, and in New York held senior management positions with The Dilenschneider Group and Hill & Knowlton. 


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