Restoring Reputation by Degrees

January 02, 2012

Restoring Reputation by Degrees

earth pictureIt has been an unusually warm couple of months here in New York. I can’t    help but think that global warming is staring me right in the face.  I often think of myself as a bear that hibernates when cold weather arrives. I often joke with my neighbors that they won’t see me until spring because I’ll be going into my bear cave for my “winter sleep” when the first chill arrives.  So the past couple of months have been an anomaly as I have wandered out doors more often than usual on the weekends. Of course I have to go to work and do the ordinary errands that surround my life but given the choice, I stay inside. Maybe that is why I like to write about reputation because it gives me an excuse to sit in my little office cave that is closed off to the world.
All of this got me to thinking about how climate change gets communicated today when there is criticism about  the science after controversies arose from the release of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This happened a year or two ago.  Undoubtedly this is the perfect case study for how an industry (climate change scientists) suffered reputational damage and now has to recover and restore reputational equity. Climate change skeptics were fairly adept at effectively persuading many in the general public to doubt the scientific validity of global warming.

I was glad to see an article in the New Scientist (sorry, you need a subscription) by Robert Ward (policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics) on how some of the reputation recovery methods that I recommend in my book might be applied to regain confidence and trust in climate science.  He sees the situation right, “Even if the claims of misconduct and incompetence are eventually proven to be largely untrue, or confined to a few bad apples, mud sticks.”  This is a truism — no matter how much science you have on your side, it is sometimes never enough when it comes to public opinion.  Sometimes the facts just don’t matter as much as they should in a perfect world.

Ward is right that hope is not a solution to rebuilding reputation. Many CEOs used to think they could outlast controversy but in fact learn the hard way that it only extends the problem.  “Communicating tirelessly” — one of my recommendations — is the right path forward.  “No comment” does not work as it used to. Whether it is finding neutral partners or independent coalitions to bring additional voices into the discussion or actually training climate scientists to transparently talk about and defend the science — its certainties and uncertainties, communications will do more good than harm in this digital world.

An interesting analysis of temperature records appeared in an article in The Economist  which speaks to the importance of bringing in a third, fourth or fifth party opinion to validate scientific findings.  I read it on a plane to Europe in November but kept it because it made commonsense as an approach to understanding the climate change debate — is it getting warmer or not?  Let me just add here that the topic of global warming is a lot more complicated than I will ever understand — gaps in readings, different criteria, different types of thermometers, urban settings where temperatures might be recorder higher, etc.  But interestingly, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project stepped into the argument on climate change 18 months ago to test existing analyses. And they did so with the addition of skeptical scientists and funders as well as Nobel prize winners. As it is often said, let’s open the kimono and thus they did. And they found that the existing temperature records that the earth was warming was not far off the mark from what had been previously reported.  A peer review is underway and I look forward to learning more about that when it is released.  Next up, however, for climate scientists and institutions affiliated with climate change,would be communicating openly and collectively (and maybe relentlessly) to explain how the newest findings answer questions, raise new ones and guide us as to what we need to be doing Now not Later.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

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 corporate and CEO reputations.

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