How to rebuild a damaged reputation

Nick Gold 29 May 2022

Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” And in the age of social media, this has never been more apt.

With the dawn of sites like Twitter and Reddit, it’s easier than ever for the tide of public opinion to turn against you. Already this year Will Smith and P&O Ferries have made high-profile errors of judgement that have cost them their reputations.

So when you make a serious mistake that calls your character (or the integrity of your business) into question, is it possible to recover and rebuild your reputation?

The consequences of a public gaffe

Whether it’s a public indiscretion or an ill-judged tweet, mistakes can have serious consequences. Careers can collapse and businesses can break down. People may be left jobless, causing emotional and financial distress. Sponsors often break ties with individuals following allegations of misconduct.

You may never know how far the damage extends. Often, consequences continue to crop up long after the fact in myriad unexpected ways. So whatever happens, you need to be able to deal with it.

Negative media attention is part and parcel of public success. Mistakes are amplified in the news and across social media. There’s nowhere to hide, so there’s only one way to deal with your mistake — you need to own it.

The key to owning your mistake

When you’re thrust into the spotlight, there’s a lot of pressure to respond to your gaffe immediately. But a kneejerk reaction can often dilute your apology, digging you into a deeper hole.

Instead, take the time to understand and acknowledge the impact of your mistake. Speak to those who have been directly affected — whether it's your family, employees, or customers — and find out how to make reparations. With this information, you can start to repair relationships and offer a genuine apology.

Sincerity is the key to owning your mistake. Your reaction should reflect the gravity of your actions without being mawkish. The fastest way to redemption is owning your mistake with openness and vulnerability.

The road to redemption

Seeking redemption for a public mistake is like recovering from an injury. You can attempt to play the next game after pulling a muscle — but it’s far better to take time off to recover, and return when the injury has healed.

You can’t expect everything to instantly return to normal after you’ve apologised. Many people may still be hurt or offended. Instead, focus on rebuilding your relationships and repairing the ongoing damage. To speed up the recovery process, aim to:

  • Apologise without making excuses or trying to justify your actions — don’t say, “I’m sorry, but…”
  • Say sorry without being overly effusive — if people detect false sincerity in your response, it might make matters worse
  • Work with your team to create a united response — if you’re trying to redeem a business, bring your team together so you can approach the problem with solidarity.

How to deal with the social media fallout

Social media is where many mistakes are judged most harshly. Everything from memes to reaction videos can push your error further into the spotlight, making it seem inescapable.

In most cases, people have already formed an opinion about what you’ve done. They’ve made up their minds about who you are, how you’re acting, and your response to the situation. So it’s essential to remember that you can’t please everyone. In fact, the more you try to appeal to the masses, the more you can dilute the sincerity of your apology.

Instead, focus on those who have been directly impacted by your gaffe. Take action to satisfy them first and foremost. And if the social media backlash is too much to handle, consider taking the conversation away from social media while you deal with the fallout.

The road to redemption is a long one. You have to take the pain in the short-term, but you don’t have to react to the noise around you until you’re ready.

How stories put you on the path to redemption

Storytelling is a powerful tool for anyone trying to rebuild their reputation. The more we hear someone’s story, the less we’re affected by its controversial elements. We begin to empathise with their honesty and openness, and understand the difficulties in their journey.

This is why people admire rebellious personalities like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Tyson Fury. We expect controversy from their stories — and we admire them for staying true to themselves.

Gerald Ratner and Nick Leeson are two popular after-dinner speakers at Speakers Corner. Their respective falls from grace — and their subsequent redemption — are a formative part of their stories. They speak about the importance of owning your mistakes, and understanding that they’re now part of who you are.

To this day, both speakers continue to deal with the impact of their mistakes. But they understand that the sooner you embrace your failings — as well as your successes — the sooner others will embrace your story, and join you on your journey to redemption.

For further information or to book a keynote speaker, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070 or email  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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