We talk a lot about reputation management here at Media Bullseye, and have even dedicated a several-part series to the best ways to manage your reputation online. We constantly urge companies and public figures to use services like CustomScoop to keep a close eye on potential PR flare-ups and how they are perceived.
This is truly an important part of brand management and public relations. Social media has expanded the ways in which a brand can communicate with the public, consumers, and stakeholders and correct misconceptions, put out fires, and generally conduct good crisis communications.
But is a brand ever beyond repair? Does damage control and spin even work once a reputation has been so badly tarnished and established as the status quo? Former President Bill Clinton is beloved by many and widely considered to have been a good president–but no amount of spin control will fix the fact that he will also go down in history as a philanderer and a womanizer. Should he even bother trying to change this perception? I think not–it would be a waste of time and energy.
After reading about Don Imus’ latest slip of the tongue, I wonder…are public figures “required” to be good people? It’s a bit of a rhetorical question, because the answer is an obvious “no.” There are plenty of celebrities, journalists, politicians, etc., who have absolutely terrible reputations as philanderers, drug addicts, violent criminals, and worse.
So why does the public act shocked (shocked!) when someone turns out to be a less than perfect citizen? And why do public figures spend so much time and energy attempting to spin their images, when conventional wisdom dictates that once you’ve been painted with one brush, it’s really rather difficult to give yourself a fresh coat in a different color?
It seems that old cranky coot Don Imus has done it again, planting his foot directly in his mouth. The beleaguered radio host, who has previously been suspended for making racist remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, made a remark about football star Pacman Jones, seeming to connect the athlete’s race with his history of legal woes (Jones has been arrested six times since being drafted, and had to sit out the 2007 season as punishment for an alleged criminal incident).
I wrote about the last time “the I-man” was in hot water on the old CustomScoop blog. At the time I wondered why so many celebrities managed to wind up in hot water for seemingly racist, sexist, or otherwise insensitive remarks when they are well aware that in the Internet era, their faux pas will live on in infamy forever. In the YouTube age, public figures should know better than to go on racist rants or make misogynistic slurs. But if that is who they are, should they really try to spin it otherwise?
As Imus backpedals and attempts to explain himself (he claims that he was actually saying that African Americans are unfairly targeted by police), I wonder if he shouldn’t just stop with the spin. His listeners will either continue to tune in or not, his employers will either continue to keep him on the air or not…his efforts at damage control will probably only serve to make things worse.
This is obviously a specific example, and doesn’t apply to every case of reputation management or spin control. But I think by now, the idea of spinning a scandal has so permeated our culture that the public is all too aware when they are being fed a line. Enough people have seen “Wag the Dog” that it has become common slang for using spin to wriggle out of a scandal.
Public figures frequently underestimate their audience, which knows darn well (usually) when it’s being fed a line of bull. A person being fed a line of bull will either choose to reject it, or allow their affection for the person doing the feeding to rule the day.
Example: Bill Clinton, despite being a well-known womanizer and adulterer, still enjoys a favorable public image. The public generally chooses to allow the good he has done to overrule how they feel about his transgressions. Spin doesn’t matter.
Mel Gibson, after a widely publicized DUI arrest and subsequent racist rant, has a rather unfavorable public image. While I am certain he still has fans and supporters, his clout has diminished and his status as an A-list Hollywood power broker has vanished. He has not made much effort to change this perception; perhaps he knows that at least right now, such efforts would be somewhat futile.
So, back to the original question. In matters of reputation management, does a brand reach a point where it is beyond spinning? And has Imus reached that point?
I don’t think all the good PR in the world can help a brand that’s been permanently tainted. What do you think?