In my Know More! Reputations program, I teach a simple process for responding to a negative review or criticism of any kind. While my training focuses on the impact to a person’s online brand and reputation when responding inappropriately via a digital medium where all comments could become digitally permanent, the process also works in any format. Whether you’re responding to critics online, on paper, over the phone, or face-to-face, here’s a simple five-step process that will keep the story from getting out of hand and potentially damaging your personal brand:
- State the facts.
- Apologize again.
- Let the person know what you’re going to about the situation.
- Take personal responsibility for ensuring it happens.
This process has helped me transform temporarily angry customers into long-term advocates. It’s helped me in relationships with bosses, colleagues, and suppliers. Heck…it’s probably saved my marriage.
We all make mistakes. We all do dumb things. Some mistakes are an accident, and some dumb things are done intentionally. Don’t try and gloss-over or excuse your misdeed because the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime. Take accountability for your actions, be honest and sincere in your response, and outside of heinous crimes, just about everyone will give you a second chance.
Thus, I’ve watched with fascination as a multi-billion dollar organization with multimillionaire brand representatives — all counseled by expert advisers and image consultants — keep screwing this up. While individuals within this organization have given us many examples of personal brand/reputation destruction during the past year, there was one truly non-story that quickly became THE story because no one followed the process.
Imagine what “Deflategate” could have been…
Tom Brady Press Conference – Monday, January 20, 2014,
The Day Following the AFC Championship Game:
STEP 1 – APOLOGIZE:
“As you know, the NFL League Office is investigating allegations that the footballs we used in yesterday’s game had been tampered with, specifically that the footballs were under-inflated, or had less air than mandated by league rules. First off, let me apologize, to my teammates, coaches, front office, owners, New England Patriots fans, and football fans everywhere. This is a completely unnecessary distraction and it takes away from my teammates’ exceptional performance in yesterday’s game.”
STEP 2 – STATE THE FACTS:
“I, just like most quarterbacks in the NFL, prefer that a football has a certain feel to it. Prior to each game, we have the opportunity to review the footballs that our offense will use. During yesterday’s pre-game, the footballs felt a bit over-inflated to me and so I asked the equipment managers to see if they could check and then get the footballs to the level I like at the bottom end of what is permissible. Like probably most of you, I just learned that NFL rules state that footballs needs to be inflated in the 12.5 to 13.5 PSI range. I have no clue what the PSI is of the footballs that I like to throw, I can just tell by the touch if they are comfortable or not and I assume that officials check the footballs and that whatever we use is within the range. I’ve heard theories that the cold weather yesterday may have also played a role. I suppose it’s possible that after our guys let some of the air out of the footballs, that the cold pushed the PSI below the 12.5 range. I have no idea if this is possible or not. I do know this, however. We won the game 45 to 7 and I guess in the second half, the footballs were at full inflation on the high end of the range so it really didn’t make a difference either way.”
STEP 3 – APOLOGIZE AGAIN:
“Now, I want to be clear, what I just stated is an explanation, and not an excuse. I am the quarterback of this team and ultimately no one does anything with the footballs without me knowing. I asked the guys to remove a bit of air from the footballs and if somehow that got the footballs below the PSI limit, I truly apologize. I feel horrible for the equipment guys because they were doing what I asked. And I again want to really apologize to my teammates and coaches as they should be answering questions related to playing in the Super Bowl, not questions related to football air pressure.”
STEP 4 – WHAT I’M GOING TO DO ABOUT IT:
“Bottom line, a rule is a rule and I am the leader of this team. Even if I didn’t know the rule, it is still my responsibility to ensure that the rule is followed. I’m assuming that the NFL is going to conduct an investigation, and I want everyone to know that I will fully participate.”
STEP 5 – TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY:
“And if the NFL decides that I did something wrong and deserve punishment, I will abide by their decision. I sincerely hope this does not interfere with the excitement my team and our fans have about playing in the Super Bowl, and I will do everything in my power to make sure whatever the NFL wishes to do is done quickly so we all can get on with more important items related to the upcoming game.”
If the above scenario would have occurred, how long would the story have remained in the public conscience? And how serious a punishment would the NFL really have implemented? There is zero chance they would have done anything to impact the Super Bowl, for example suspend their marquis player. There probably would have been a fine, a stern warning, and the story would have been a non-story within a week, and Brady would have been celebrated for being so forthcoming and for being a true leader and accepting responsibility.
Of course the above hypothetical scenario assumes that what I wrote in Step 2 is accurate — that Brady did not knowingly cheat. However, my hunch tells me he did not as he would have way too much to lose, and very little to gain.
What I do believe happened, however, is that Brady, the Patriots, and the entire NFL woefully underestimated the power of social media and the viral nature of this story. Whether it was ego or ignorance, I believe all parties thought the story would quickly go away (read/hear how Brady did initially respond and you decide). When the story did not go away, there seemed to be backtracking, the non-denial denial, and cover-ups galore. And as mentioned earlier, the cover-up is nearly always worse than the original crime. And so “Deflategate” went from a “who cares?” sort of story to front-page news.
You don’t have to be someone famous to have a personal brand and an online reputation. In a world where almost everyone is “Google-able,” it is imperative that when you respond to honest criticism or a critical comment in a digital format that you remember that anything you say can be shared, archived, and made searchable — forever. Don’t let what you say take on a life of its own. Be truthful, take responsibility, and you can control the message. Be less forthcoming and people can and will invent their own story, and then you are playing catch-up and are in damage-control mode. If the non-controlled message goes viral, there’s little or sometimes nothing you can do to reign it back in.
Follow the five-step process outlined above and you’ll hopefully put issues to rest quickly, and privately. There are things you can do to control your digital brand and reputation no matter how stressful the situation, now that you Know More!
Creative Commons deflated football image by Frankleleon