There was an interesting letter to the editor in this week’s Wall Street Journal. The letter (October 3) was in response to an earlier article in the WSJ on how America’s largest mortgage lender Countrywide Financial and its chairman Angelo Mozilo were fighting back against the onslaught of bad publicity and deepening financial woes tarnishing its reputation. Countrywide’s embarked on a new strategy that includes a proactive internal program to galvanize employees in support of the besieged company. One of the internal initiatives involves providing employees with wristbands saying Protect our House and telling them that their integrity was being attacked and it was high time to fight back. Here is part of the letter written by Dr. Agnes Huff, president and CEO of Agnes Huff Communications Group, that a Weber Shandwick colleague sent me:
Countrywide chairman and CEO Angelo Mozilo’s street-fighting strategy (“Countrywide Tells Workers, ‘Protect Our House’,” Marketplace, Oct. 3) is adding fuel to the fire. If he thinks this will fix his reputation and that of Countrywide, he is being sadly led astray and will be a casualty of that effort. You can’t rebuild your corporate reputation in the midst of a crisis. While it may feel good now to divert internal management attention externally and blame the big, bad villains who are smearing your reputation, the public views it as corporate arrogance, victimization and defensiveness, qualities that Countrywide should attempt not to have associated with its name.Better to listen to sound advice: Keep your head down, let the crisis pass, work from the inside out to restore balance and demonstrate your focus on the business at hand, so that at the right time it can exemplify your corporate ethics and values.
I have blogged before about how individuals and companies are increasingly fighting back to safeguard their reputations. There is no denying that this is a major shift in the reputation landscape. Wal-Mart is another good example of a company that is not taking the blows sitting down. The truth is that Countrywide is not just starting the process of reputation-building as they find themselves in the spotlight. They have spent time, resources and money trying to build and understand the value of their reputation. However, as we know from watching other companies battle for their reputations, the facts sometimes get lost in media frenzy and it is hard to defend oneself under those circumstances. In addition, Mozilo’s compensation is a lightning rod that is hard to overlook when people are losing their homes.
I agree with Dr. Huff’s statement that you cannot rebuild your company reputation in the middle of a crisis. Yet, whether you started reputation-building before the crisis or in the middle of the crisis, you have to start somewhere and there is no better time than now.