Perception can be everything when it comes to your company’s reputation. Just ask the owners of that Australian radio station whose morning announcers apparently triggered the suicide of a nurse at the London hospital treating pregnant Duchess Kate Middleton in late 2012. Management went into crisis PR mode fast. Big surprise. A couple of their people pull a stunt and a person is dead!
One reason for dredging up this once globally-followed case is this. Did anyone, at first, seriously believe that mimicking royal family members to get information about one of the most famous people in the world was that bad? Come on. Shock jocks going back to Howard Stern and Don Imus at their caustic heights have “punked” the unwary regularly while audiences grimace or laugh. See the movie “Private Parts” about Stern’s career. Stern and Imus remain on-air because they still provoke although Imus has pulled back since he lost his MSNBC job in 2007 for thoughtless racist language only to re-emerge on Fox Business Network. I thought the hospital trick was rather tame and other shock jocks probably secretly wished they’d done it – until – UNTIL an involved nurse hanged herself days later and comedy became horror.
That’s where perception protection started. Station owners did not dare defend the employees even though the hospital-call bit didn’t push the envelope. It would have been them against the world had they argued on behalf of “good fun” after someone died. They had to make amends: apologize profusely, fire the jocks, let them apologize, contribute a half-million dollars to the victim’s family, etc. Sponsors were fleeing. Reputation “flames” needed dousing.
And there’s the lesson for leaders. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how right you are or think you are. Sometimes a majority perceives otherwise and you’re compelled to deal with it no matter how furious you are internally at the injustice of it all. In this case, pushing back would have been sword-fighting shadows while stakeholders ran. That’s why public perception cases like this demand repeated apologies, self-investigation, acts of contrition, and throwing employees (even executives) under the bus. If most everyone believes you’re the face of evil then your best recourse is often to commit what might feel to you like Seppuku. (Look it up). It does no good to rage at the fates, unfairness, and an unforeseeable outcome. You play the hand your dealt and right wrongs, perceived or real. The Australian station owners did.
Obviously there are times to fight. Opponents are wrong, perceptions are mistaken, but you are right in a way that you are convinced that for legal, moral, or ethical reasons you simply cannot afford to roll over for your opponents. In such cases, you shove back while explaining why it is in your best interest – and hopefully the public’s – to fight. But when? There’s the rub.
A character in “The Big Lebowski” says sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you. The challenge for leaders and advisors is to discern who’s eating whom and act accordingly. A good indication could be to ask: might you win a legal battle only to watch your company destroyed or badly damaged by a perception you did not correct?