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What Ray Liotta Can Teach Us About Reputation Risk

This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Change Agent

A lesser-known Ray Liotta character once said: “Being right is not a bullet-proof vest.” His point is well taken in this context. Consider these three issues dominating the news of late:

Climate change. Common Core. Obamacare.

Not only are these three issues that you’ll want to avoid when on a blind date, but they’re also at the center of a public debate with ideological extremes dominating the dialogue. These debates are prominent examples of what can happen when an issue becomes characterized by its most extreme supporters or detractors. Understandably, politically agnostic nonprofits are finding it difficult to navigate these rough waters while staying true to a purposeful mission.

Who puts out the fire when one of these extreme groups targets your organization? What is your method of assessing a potential attack, and developing an appropriate response? What if you overreact, and unnecessarily accelerate a negative story?

“Being right is not a bullet proof vest.” It isn’t enough to shrug off the need for a crisis strategy simply because the attacks waged against your organization are baseless, ridiculous, or fictional. The frightening part of an attack by an extreme ideological group is that you don’t actually have to have done anything wrong for the attack to hit its mark, and your reputation to be damaged.

For years, corporations have invested in strategies to prevent and prepare for such situations, recognizing the increasing fragility of one’s reputation coupled with the declining tolerance of a marketplace saturated with other options. Nonprofits are beginning to come to the same realization: whether you asked for it or not, you’re playing in dangerous territory, making your organization, your brand, and your leadership vulnerable to reputation attack.

A prominent foundation is attacked by left-leaning groups for what appears to be politically-motivated policy shifts. A national nonprofit is attacked by right-leaning groups through one of its local affiliates after a volunteer says something stupid on a secret video. An international aid organization is made the target of an up-and-coming investigative reporter for misunderstood, yet entirely common business practices.

These are real examples of organizations caught unprepared, resulting in millions of dollars in recovery expenses. In one case, the organization under attack shuttered.

The secret to effective crisis communications is that there is no secret. It takes hard work, considerable risk, and careful planning. But when you eliminate planning from the equation, you’re only left with hard work and risk. Organizations that take crisis planning seriously are the ones that typically recover more easily when a reputation emergency hits. Here are the basic elements that can serve as the foundation to any plan:

  1. What keeps you up at night? Identify the 5-10 scenarios that represent the greatest risk to the future of your organization.
  2. What’s fueling the fire? For each scenario, identify the key elements that are driving the crisis, often called the crisis catalysts or wildcard variables.
  3. Who does the talking? Determine appropriate spokespeople for your organization, and develop messaging no longer than three sentences.
  4. How do you get back on track? Identify a response strategy that best neutralizes the crisis catalyst. Remember, there are no zero risk options.
  5. How do you prevent the next one? Regularly update your crisis response plan, and ensure every stakeholder within your organization knows about it and understands their role in the response.

Whether you think through response strategies in-house or use for-hire experts to help you through it, the key to developing a useful crisis plan is being honest with yourselves and each other. Give voice to the scenarios that worry you most. Expose organizational vulnerabilities now, even if it’s uncomfortable doing so. It’s a lot easier to rebuild an inadequate infrastructure now than it is to try during the midst of a crisis.

When a crisis hits, time becomes very valuable. It makes sense to use the time you have now to limit the amount of panic that will come when an attack is waged against you.


If your organization is playing in waters that are susceptible to an ideological attack, remember that “being right is not a bullet proof vest.” Spend as much time reaffirming your own beliefs as you do assessing those of the groups who could cost you your reputation.


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