I’ve not long finished reading the latest autobiography by Benjamin Zephaniah, the dub-poet and self-proclaimed anarchist that went from borstal boy to multi-honourary doctorate, famously turning down an OBE not once but twice.
He is revered by people from all walks of life, regardless of race or religion, as demonstrated by the crowd that gathered for his recent show at The Sage Gateshead, many queuing for well over an hour to meet him afterwards.
The transformation of Zephaniah’s image, from “born failure” to star of stage, TV, radio and literature, didn’t happen overnight, but is pretty remarkable in PR terms. Public relations professionals understand how tough it is to successfully come back from reputational damage.
And like those organisations that do manage to ride the storm, Zephaniah’s transparency and authenticity has had no small part in it.
He’s real, witty, and unapologetic. With such transparency though, comes a vulnerability that can be difficult to accept. We live in a cruel and judgemental society, and if your self-esteem or resilience is anything less than sky high, being truly yourself in the public domain can feel terrifying.
Sticks and stones
But if you’re being truly yourself, there is little that can be levelled at you in terms of damaging or hurtful criticism that you don’t berate yourself for already.
Organisations and personalities alike need to own themselves fully and completely to develop the resilience and often admiration from others required to overcome reputational hurdles. It sounds so simple. But there are many factors at play, not least the fact that there can be thousands of autonomous individuals contributing to that perception.
To err is human, but there are limits
There are countless examples of organisations and individuals that have turned things around for themselves in this way. It’s difficult these days to reconcile glamorous Geordie sweetheart Cheryl Cole with the 20-year-old that appeared in court charged with racially aggravated assault occasioning actual bodily harm. We often forgive those in the public eye, not least when we’re invited into their heartbreak, because we see parts of ourselves in them, including the parts that make mistakes.
Conversely, Bell Pottinger, one of the most well known brands in communications, went into administration after it ran a secret campaign on behalf of one of its clients to stir up racial tension in South Africa. Even after being stripped of its membership of the PRCA, it failed to show any humility and clients quickly cut ties with the organisation.
No matter how scary it may feel, we must wear our hearts on our sleeves, because consumers these days are more discerning than ever and rightly, they will call you out and take others with them if they sense any bullshit.
Doing the right thing, and consistently demonstrating behaviour that matches with the impression of ourselves others have is the only way to win and keep customers and staff, and futureproof our reputation.