So I walked around all last week, turning the Tiger Woods debacle over in my head, wondering if I had anything to add.  Hadn’t everyone already piled on?  Probably.  And even the thoughts I want to share with you aren’t particularly new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth saying.  Again. And again.tiger-woods-stephanie-fierman.jpg

Thought #1: what should be public is now private, and what should be private has been made public.  This is an expression borrowed from Ellen Hume, currently an Annenberg Fellow and a world-renowned journalist, teacher and television commentator, among other things. 

Ellen was also the founder of PBS‘s Democracy Project, which focused on citizen involvement in public affairs and was, in part, an effort to more fully leverage all the channels beyond television (that were available even in the late 90’s) in ways that tapped in to those channels’ special capabilities.  The Web is great for providing more in-depth detail than one can deliver on television, for example.

When Hume made this public/private statement, she was making the point that we seem to prefer using 24-hour channels, like the Web, to dredge up every salacious, personal detail about everything and everyone, no matter how ultimately truthful or additive to the story such details may be. By the time we beat said details to death, who even knows what was true or not but, man, what a ride.  Think Tiger here: private details that are now gruesomely public, like a neighbor claiming the golfer was snoring on the lawn and the 911 call heard ’round the world.

Contrast all this with TARP.  Could you explain what TARP is in 25 words or less? How many beneficiaries can you name? How many of them have paid back the money? What is the name of the popular American economist and Nobel Prize winner who has been particularly outspoken and critical of the program? Do you know approximately how much the U.S. government has handed out to date?

I could not answer all of these questions, but I do know that Tiger Woods’ wife used a wedge to smash in his car windows.

After you include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the U.S. government has doled out over $1 TRILLION in our money. The state of the financial markets has an impact on this country, and an impact on you.  Tiger’s mistresses? Not so much. But dang it all if some knucklehead isn’t updating this story every 20 seconds. 

What is public is private and what should be private is public.  Conduct yourself accordingly.

Related Thought #2: The math doesn’t work anymore. Once something is brewing you can hope for the best, but act, please, assuming the worst.

Just this past week, a smart person I know looked at a situation in which it was possible that Company X might encounter negative press if information having nothing to do with the company was misinterpreted in the media. So this smart person did what smart people are trained to do: s/he attempted to thoughtfully quantify Company X’s exposure – for example, how many individuals might actually be impacted by the event. Everyone comfortably concluded that the answer was not very many.

That used to be a good answer. Not anymore. Now it only takes one person with a high-speed Internet connection and a beef to let millions of people know what he knows or what he thinks he knows. Dell poo-pooed Jeff Jarvis.  United ignored Dave Carroll. Comcast disregarded Mona Shaw.  One blogger with an agenda attempted to trash a model’s reputation.   An anonymous jerk on JuicyCampus.com started a vicious tirade about female Yale Law School students.  Are you next?

devil.jpgIt takes one person to start a fire you will not be able to control.  And some form of this content will remain on the Web forever. For-e-ver.

Forget about intelligent, rational assessments of how big something might become.  By the time it’s big, it’s too late.  It could be one anonymous email, or an angry spouse or a dissatisfied customer.  Move quickly when a crisis arises, or else.

So what I hope Tiger, you and I now have in common is an understanding of the gigantic reputational risks that now exist, given the Web and a 24 hour news cycle.  My advice to normal people is to build a positive reputation online before something happens, so it’s there as a counterbalance to any threat that might arise.  I never thought I needed to recommend that one should also attempt to avoid totally avoidable, stupid acts that could unravel everything a person has built, but hey – a fresh reminder never hurt anyone.

 

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