I learned a new business term this year: reputational harm. It’s not new to lawyers or public relations consultants, but to the rest of us, it showed up in newsletters, advertisements and other marketing products from experts who promise to “train all your employees on the impact of reputational harm,” so that you don’t have to endure anything even remotely close to what Penn State has undergone this year.

I was speaking to a client recently who said that the CEO of his company had put a hold on all professional development offerings until everyone in the company was trained in reputation management. OK, I thought, not the worst thing an employee has ever had to sit through. Another client kept cancelling our meeting because she had to cover for her boss while he was at a five-week seminar on Mitigating Reputational Harm. The thing that really got me thinking about this issue was when I was asked to undergo a background check in order to run a one-day workshop. That’s when I knew things were getting serious.

I started wondering whether public speakers needed to worry about reputational harm. I didn’t need much time to arrive at my answer. Of course they do. Just look at how many ways there are to describe harm to one’s reputation:

discredit, slander, taint, bruise, stain, smear, disgrace, cast aspersions (on), blacken someone’s name/character, knock someone off their pedestal

As we’ve noted in previous posts, credibility is the main currency in the public speaking world. It’s the entrance condition. Without a solid reputation, no audience will give us the time of day. Perhaps the best thing we can do to avoid reputational harm is to spend some evaluating ourselves against a set of standards. Here are just a few:

Low End:
Word choice
Gum chewing
Use of slang expressions
Inappropriate attire

High End:
Making a shameless sales pitch
Disclosing too much personal information
Showing frustration with the audience
Failing to make proper reference to someone else’s work
Inappropriate touching
Alienating certain groups of people

One of the kindest reactions to the Freeh Report came from Nike co-founder Phil Knight who truly wanted to believe that Coach Joe Paterno was innocent of any wrongdoing. He said, “According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences.”

My take on the report, and the recent surge in “reputation management” training is that mitigating harm to one’s own reputation must be a proactive endeavor. Doing what’s right in the moment. If we all could learn this lesson, we just might avoid any “heartbreaking consequences.”

– Barbara

Barbara Roche