Memo to the File: Reputation is All You Have

This past week’s news that Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff–perhaps the world’s most successful Ponzi scheme operator of all time—had finally self-imploded, severely hurting some of the most philanthropic people and respected organizations in our Jewish community. The collateral damage from this latest story of greed, deception and hubris is yet to be fully understood, but it is clear that many will suffer its consequences.

Those individuals who have lost their fortunes will have lots to contemplate as they figure out what to do next and how to rebuild their lives. For those philanthropies and other public institutions, the compounding challenge is how to communicate with their funders, supporters, staffs and the public who will begin to question how they could have been caught up in this age’s old scheme.

In case an organization out there needs some guidance on how to manage their way through this emerging public relations crisis, here are a few basics:

  • Start with the clear understanding that your reputation is your most treasured asset and that it is now and forever (if it hadn’t been before) your highest priority.
  • Assess your exposure fully and with all due speed. That translates into quickly pulling your volunteer and professional leadership together to gather all the facts and determine your potential vulnerabilities.
  • Determine your “worst case” scenario and work from there to plan your communications/reputation management strategy.
  • Coordinate with legal counsel to assure your approach and messages do not do any harm.
  • Determine who needs to know; what they deserve to know; and how to sequence and execute the communications.
  • Plan any communications with an eye toward potential media inquiries, especially in this 24/7, blogger-centric environment. Assume the media will always try to beat you with the breaking news and decide if that matters to your organization. (Note: It usually does matter but there are ways to address this in your planning.)
  • Imagine what the media might say and be prepared with your own story line (truthful, straightforward, brief) and answers to their most likely questions.
  • Identify one key senior spokesperson whose reputation and manner communicate honesty and trust.
  • Determine how a negative press story might impact your normal business operations and plan accordingly.
  • Engage professional public relations crisis communications counsel if warranted to prepare and manage with you a weekly communications strategy and plan. Give them 24/7 access to all information and your key people.

Finally, repeat to yourselves 5 times daily. “All we have is our reputation.” And commit to memory Warren Buffet’s wise words, ““It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional, with deep experience in both the public and private sectors. She currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.