Maintaining and Defending Your Reputation in the Internet Age

It’s tough watching the evening news when you see a once-prominent person being led away in handcuffs. It seems that hardly a day goes by without a scandal.

         Such scenes can incite the paranoia in each of us.

         While most of us try hard each day to do the right thing, even the best-intentioned can occasionally stumble. And when this happens it can be hard to recover.

         We live in an age when people fight back in public. They’re regularly tempted to pursue legal means thanks to the heavy rewards they can provide while professional reputations can be scorched virtually instantly thanks to the power of the Worldwide Web. How does one maintain their good name in an age of scandal, an aggressive litigation climate and when the power of mass communication is available to anyone with a computer and internet connection?

         Consider what happened in my home one afternoon. My wife received an e-mail from a friend about rude treatment she had received from a local gasoline-station attendant. But this woman did not just contact my wife. She e-mailed every member of the local mom’s club – about 400 moms. Most likely, many of them told their husbands about it, doubling the reach of the e-mail by dinner time. A few others probably forwarded it as well. It’s safe to say by the end of the day probably 1,000 people in our small town had heard about the so-called rude attendant.

          But do we know if the story is true? For better or worse we instinctively trust the originator of the e-mail. What about the attendant’s side? Was he provoked? Maybe he wasn’t feeling well? Has anyone confirmed that a confrontation actually took place?

          The answer is: it hardly matters. In the court of public opinion there was not much the attendant could do once the customer hit the “send” key. What matters is that in a few minutes many residents formed a negative impression about a local business – one that I’ve personally patronized many times with never a bad experience.

         Trust can take years to build and a relatively few moments to destroy. So how does one defend their reputation in the face of someone armed with the power of the internet– whether justified or not? A good place to start is by being honest.

        Consider the following:

  • Are you using the best business model for your clients, i.e., are your fees or commission fair?
  • Are you selling the appropriate products/services to your clients?
  • Which vendor do you choose, one that takes you golfing or the one with lesser fees?
  • Have you provided your clients with the most efficient services?
  • Do clients fully understand your billing system?
  • Is your customer service dept. doing all it can?
  • Is your marketing completely truthful?
  • Do you disparage competitors? Former partners or associates? The media?
  • Do you volunteer for a worthy cause?
  • Does your office have a meaningful code of ethics?
  • To whom do you turn for guidance?

          Each of these questions generates more reflection, such as: How do these actions impact how I am perceived by my clients? By my suppliers? By my community? How does my reputation, perceived or otherwise affect my business?

          Accidents happen. None of us gets it right all of the time. But when we regularly make a conscious effort to do what’s right mistakes in conduct can be minimized and if nothing else, we can move forward with a clear conscience – possibly the greatest reward of all.