The Ultimate Reputation Test

December 13, 2009

The Ultimate Reputation Test

   The test question. Warren Buffett says he uses a New York Times example to advise leaders in his company whether they should take certain actions and risk ruining their reputations overnight. He warns them that if they think they’d feel uncomfortable seeing whatever they did or said on page one of the New York Times, they shouldn’t do it. He could add another verion — think about your mom reading what you did or said on the front page of your local paper. (Somehow I don’t think Tiger Woods took this test.)  In our social media guidelines for employees at Weber Shandwick, we have a more intuitive but equally important test. We remind people that if they are posting online and have any doubt about what they are doing or saying, that’s evidence enough not to go ahead.  If they are not sure, we suggest asking their supervisor.  Believe me, this guidance is not as easy as it sounds.  There are times I doubt what I am about to write and steer away from it after thinking twice. I usually ask myself what my boss would say and that usually does the trick!
 

In recent weeks as executive bonuses have become the talk of the town, a new test was suggested by David Wessel in one of his columns for the Wall Street Journal.  He quoted Britain’s finance minister, Alistair Darling (I always think of the Darlings from Peter Pan when I hear his name) who remarked at a WSJ Future of Finance conference in London packed with financiers that “you have to pass the next-door neighbor test. You have to be able to look at your next-door neighbor and justify what you are doing.”  Wessel’s commentary on this new test was right on the money: “And many of them cannot. They cannot even explain what they do. They promise better ‘risk management,’ but to many of their neighbors the past few years were all risk, no management.” All risk and no management….I love that!

 

I would have changed the Darling test question to something along the lines that if you can explain to your neighbor why you should get a bonus in the millions when the economy is failing, unemployment is high and public outrage is off the charts, then maybe you actually deserve it. But I agree that many, not all, financiers cannot explain how they actually managed risk well enough for most of us over the past 18 months and helped make our economy more productive and safer for future generations.  

All this makes me wonder what the next test question will be 12 months from now.  How about….if you don’t want to see what you said or did on the home page of the Huffington Post, don’t do it!  A possibility.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross
lesliegainesross@gmail.com

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of reputations.

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