Many clients ask what is the potential impact of a crisis. How long will it last? When will the scrutiny die down? How does it compare to other scandals or crises? How much will it impact my reputation? When should we start the recovery process? The New York Times' insanely smart Nate Silver who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog had an interesting post yesterday on which political scandal -- the IRS targeting of conservative groups or the Benghazi attack in Libya -- would be longer-lasting and possibly impact the next election cycle. Silver chooses the former (the IRS scandal) and explains so in his article. More importantly for my interests and for those that follow me was Silver's five questions that he developed on whether a scandal "has legs." He credits Bill James' Keltner list for the initial questions. To determine whether reputational injury will be enduring, these questions are a good place for companies, leaders and others to start:
1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence? Using the 140 character Twitter test is one good way to see if the scandal has legs. Can you say it in 140 characters. Or try it with as few as 16 words which if you recall is all it took to sink former President Bush in 2003 when he said in his State of the Union Address, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantitites of uranium from Africa." Silver's argument that if it cannot be easily refuted in a similarly short string of words, you have a problem on your hands. I might add that it could be even less than one sentence...it could be a video or photo today.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand? The word candidate could be substituted for company or CEO. In this case, a company that proclaims transparency but is caught doing damage to the environment behind the scenes or engaging in financial manipulation is going to lose its credibility 1-2-3. Think about Enron and their much heralded reputation for innovation at the time. It turns out that their innovativeness was in their financial shenanigans, not in reinventing business processes that led to success. Even though Enron was long recognized by Fortune as one of the most admired and innovative companies in the world, the scandal essentially decimated that impression. In fact, it took its leaders from pinstripes to prison strips.
3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate? Or company/CEO in this case. As Silver says, "A scandal can be equally dangerous if, rather than undermining a candidate’s strengths, it reminds voters of what they like least about him." I think that Congressman Anthony Weiner's late night racy Twitter sexting reminded people of his unlikeability and brashness. Perceptions that confirm what you already thought of a person or company are hard to shake loose. Another example would be BP's then CEO, Tony Haywood, who at the time said that he wanted his life back while oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the general perception was that BP did not care about the damage being done to the environment by the oil spill and the CEO's statement only reinforced that negative reputation.
4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim? Most competitors in business do not take advantage when their peers are knocked down by scanal. Companies today easily recognize that a scandal for one company affects all and impacts the entire industry. The question for company reputation is "Can this scandal spread to peers and further damage the industry sector that might already be struggling?" Not a perfect example I fear but an example that comes to mind might be the quality issues that emerged years ago in China when lead paint was supposedly found in children's toys. That perception continues to linger for products manufactured out of China today. I was recently in a children's store when a customer asked the cashier where a T-shirt was made because she only bought children's clothing made in the USA.
5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cyle? This is a good question to ask when a potential reputation disaster emerges. There are countless examples of company reputation debacles that get drowned out by other news that draw the media's attention. I always think about how some recalls get scant coverage when bigger business stories are erupting. Or how some stories are not uncovered until the cycle is very slow and investigative reporting resumes. Silver mentions how the crude measure of a Google search shows that today, American's appetite for political news stories is at an eight year low. So President Obama and the Democrats might just avert the sting from the IRS scandal because it's not the tantalizing subject for readers as it might have been eight or nine months ago. Perhaps when the Dow is reaching 15,000, some stories just fade away.