"Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." — Abraham Lincoln
I've spent the last 10 plus years helping companies manage what shows up online about their reputation. Whether that's pure-play search engine optimization tactics or, in recent years, aggressive reputation management campaigns, the overwhelming majority of businesses simply want to fix their reputation. The problem is, most don't get that their reputation can only be as good as their actual character. Fixing an online reputation, without changing the underlying character, is the equivalent of giving bariatric surgery to someone that continues to eat fried Twinkie bars.
Instead of reputation triage—treating the symptoms—it's time for corporate America to make a concerted effort to fix the underlying character of the company, CEO and employees. Only by changing the way your employees act, your CEO leads, or your products are built, can you truly improve your corporate reputation—everything else is just a band-aid fix, at best.
Along these lines, you'll often hear me preach the merits of transparency. (In fact, I wrote a book on that very subject.) Unfortunately, the term "transparency" has been abused to the point that it's hard to tell if someone is practicing real transparency or, oxymoronically, fake transparency. Companies and high profile individuals claim to be transparent in their actions, but in reality, they are merely playing out a form of pseudo-transparency. It looks like they're being honest and open, but it's no more than a charade.
Instead, I believe that the key to building a strong corporate character—and with it, reputation—is to be authentic. Authenticity is, perhaps, an easier pill for companies to swallow in an age of corporate espionage, regulation and law suits. Too much transparency arguably leads to tipping your hand too much, but in business—and in life in general—you can never be too authentic in the way you deal with your employees, partners and customers.
Being authentic gives you permission to not try to be all things to all people. Apple and its visionary founder Steve Jobs, are a great example of a company that conducted itself with authenticity. The company built amazing products that, often, couldn't please all people at all times. It didn't try too. Instead, Steve Jobs et al were unabashed about the reasons why the iPhone didn't support Flash, why your antenna issues were due to operator error, and why you rarely see any of their products on sale. Apple has its critics, but its authenticity and consistent character leads to many, many more loyal fans.
And that's the goal for your company, your products and for you, individually. Don't worry about your reputation, worry about your character. Be authentic in the way you conduct yourself, and your customers, clients and employees will fully appreciate your strengths and your weaknesses. A screw-up, mishap or failing will not affect your reputation nearly as much, if you demonstrate that you conducted yourself with integrity all along.