To Avoid a Reputation Crisis Don’t Do What I Did!
On October 7, 2014 my life blew up. I was serving as First Lady of Oregon, partner to the Governor who was running for reelection. A notoriously mudslinging reporter who had been after me for years finally found something from my past to make the mud stick – a green card marriage and attempted then aborted pot growing operation.
Those blasts from my distant past were used to forward politically motivated allegations that the governor and I had abused our public positions for personal gain. It launched a media frenzy the likes of which Northwest politics had never seen. I became the most humiliated person in the region and we wound up under federal investigation. After two and half years of intense and invasive investigation federal prosecutors found nothing to pursue and dropped the case without ever filing any charges. Despite the exoneration our lives were irrevocably changed.
As a result of these experiences I now work in the public relations field both to help people avoid getting targeted and to better cope with the personal trauma if it does happen. If you want to avoid winding up in the bulls-eye of tabloid tactics here are some suggestions, based on first-hand experience, of what not to do.
One: If you are planning to take risks and become a visible leader who intends to shake up the status quo build your social media platform first so that you have some ability to counter a false narrative.
I stepped into the public role as First Lady (and a very unconventional one at that) with a small social media platform and pretty ignorant of the new media paradigm. I easily could have built up my social media presence in the year and half of campaign time not to mention my own visible professional work the many years before the campaign — I made a mistake not doing so. When the false allegations hit I had no way of countering the onslaught of misinformation and cyber-bullying.
Two: Recognize right up front that you may need to hire a credible professional reputation management public relations expert.
In our case, we relied on political advisors and campaign communications experts who thought they could handle the situation. In retrospect they were utterly unqualified for what we were dealing with. I strongly believe that had we brought in quality reputation management experts we could have significantly reduced the damage.
Three: Create a solid strategy for addressing media misinformation.
In my opinion we made another mistake in not publically challenging the misinformation right up front. Our situation was tricky because we were in a political campaign and conventional wisdom was not to respond to negative media coverage since that just keeps the negative subject in the headlines. However, conventional wisdom no longer holds in our clickbait driven media culture where sensationalism and allegations of scandal are going to continue to make headlines whether you respond or not.
To add to our particular challenges once the federal investigation was launched we were advised by attorneys not to make any public statements because investigators might not take it as we intended. The problem with that is if you are a public figure/enterprise the court of public opinion is often as significant as the court of law. Prolonged silence hammered us in the court of public opinion and, even with the exoneration, made recovery more difficult.
Four: Know the defamation laws in your state.
The laws are written so that it’s harder for a “public figure” to win a defamation suit. However, it’s not impossible. I didn’t know the defamation laws and that was a big mistake. In Oregon, you have to demand a request for a retraction of incorrect information within twenty days of learning of the misinformation. The first flurry of articles published by the agenda-driven media outlets were filled with misinformation. By not demanding retractions I missed a window to pursue a defamation claim if I decided I wanted to. Every state is different. Know the laws and required steps so that you can keep your options open.
Five: If you are actually to blame for the allegations take responsibility and apologize, sincerely. If you’re not completely authentic about your apology don’t make it.
In my case I hadn’t committed corruption or influence peddling but I had made a terrible mistake in getting into such a high profile position without realizing some determined opponent was going to dig up my past. My blind spot caused a lot of damage including to the person I love most in the world. I apologized personally and publically when all of it first broke and again when we were exonerated. Those apologies were well received by the public but far more importantly they helped me and loved ones heal and move forward.
The reputation crisis and public shaming was the most intensely difficult experience of my adult life. As a result I now work to help people avoid going through something similar and, even more importantly, to help those who are facing a similar crisis cope, survive and eventually thrive. My focus is on moving from breaking down to breaking open and coming out the other side bigger, better and more effective.