Reputation ManagementShort of a technology apocalypse, there’s no going back to pre-Internet days when it was so much easier to manage your public image. Once upon a time, the only people who ever saw a customer complaint were the folks at your company who opened the mail. Occasionally you’d find a consumer who was so irate he would take the time to write a letter to the editor of his local newspaper, and that was some huge exposure back then.

Today, of course, Twitter is fast becoming the customer service forum of choice by consumers. Not only is it immediate, but companies are being forced to take it seriously and respond quickly and publicly to issues that used to be quietly dealt with or even ignored. Consumers are taking to Facebook to complain, ask questions and warn off their friends. They’re even making hugely popular YouTube videos that are still getting views 3½ years later.

So what do Lance Armstrong and Arnold Schwarzenegger have to teach us about reputation management?

Own your mistakes. Immediately.

Not to pile on here, but I think we can all agree that Lance Armstrong’s image has taken a tremendous hit and it could have been mitigated had he admitted his involvement in the cycling doping scandal much earlier on. By denying the allegations for years he was responsible for dragging out the bad press for 13 years. Arnold, on the other hand, admitted to his family and the world when it went public, that he did indeed father a child with a member of his household staff. He admits that he had kept it hidden for years until confronted by his wife, but once it went public, he publicly ‘fessed up. There was a lot of media attention on it at the time, but now, a year and a half later, no one is talking about that anymore. The sooner you come out with your public “mea culpa” the better. Just ask Toyota, who suffered the slings and arrows of social media scorn after taking a week to apologize for their massive recall.

Own your mistakes. Period.

It’s a bit disingenuous to claim “Everyone was doing it” when you get caught doing something you shouldn’t. In recent days, Lance has taken a lot of heat for deflecting blame on the cheating culture in cycling. What he said was “‘I went and looked up the definition of cheat, and the definition is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Arnie, on the other hand, didn’t blame someone else for his affair. He took full responsibility. Even when a reputation challenge isn’t your fault, it looks weak and opens you up to ridicule and scorn when you blame someone else. Just ask Instagram, who blamed users for being too “confused and upset” to understand their new terms of service.

Don’t attack the critics.

If someone complains about your business, your products, your services, or anything to do with your business, don’t attack them. Don’t question their motives. Look at the issue they’ve raised and if it has any merit, fix it and thank them. One of the stickiest problems Lance still has to deal with is the fact that he sued people for lying about him and he won. It’s not clear what he’s going to be forced to do about that now, when it turns out they were telling the truth, regardless of their motives, but some are suing him back. If you want a great example of how to respond to a public airing of your company’s failings, look at FedEx.

Public challenges and criticisms of your company are going to happen. Your business will make mistakes. Your customer service will let someone down. Your employees might say or do something unfortunate. And it will all inevitably end up going public. Fortunately you aren’t the first business to face circumstances like this, and there are a lot of great examples you can use to handle these negative situations carefully and even turn them into positive press. Check out this one from Sears.

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