Want to Protect Your Brand? Focus on the Boss


Executives in key leadership positions can make or break a brand. It should be obvious, yet people forget that simple fact.

Steve Jobs built Apple into the strong global brand that it is today. Meanwhile, one of Jobs’ protégés, Ron Johnson, let JC Penny crumble.

You can change the color and shape of a logo overnight. Buzz comes and goes. But the actions of a boss can have an outsized impact on a brand—one that can be surprisingly difficult to reverse, even after the head honcho is gone. And it doesn’t stop after they give their two-week notice or get their pink slip. An executive’s actions after leaving a company can still have a significant impact on the brand.

Think of the NSA. Sure, the agency’s rep had problems already, thanks to the spectacular disclosures of former contractor Edward Snowden. Arguably, though, it took an even bigger hit when ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden was caught spilling secrets on a train from D.C. to New York.

Hayden took a call from a journalist “on background” allegedly revealing information about the NSA spying on foreign allies. A nearby passenger and blogger quickly took note of Hayden’s conversation and began tweeting bits and pieces of the conversation. As one would expect, media outlets jumped at the news of the former NSA chief publicly criticizing the administration for spying on world leaders.

A single slip-up by a boss can ding an organization, especially in today’s 24/7 social media world. In a moment, a boss can reverse thousands of hours of manpower that it took to build a stellar brand, not to mention declining revenue, employee departures and so on. Take, for example, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. In February 2012, CEO Nancy Brinker announced that the foundation would discontinue funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and other programs. Brinker took a hammering and days later announced that the foundation would reverse its decision to halt funding. Brinker eventually stepped down from her role as CEO, though the foundation is still struggling to regain its reputation.

We often advise clients that it is essential to regard assaults on their reputation as opportunities to influence the conversation about your business—and come out looking like a winner.

So back to JC Penny. The company’s ex-chief, Johnson, speaking for the first time since his ousting in April, told Forbes recently that coverage of his tenure at the department store was “lacking in depth, largely inaccurate, and surprisingly uninformed.”

His successor, Mike Ullman, responded that very day. Speaking at the 2013 Women’s Wear Daily Apparel & Retail CEO Summit, he seized the opportunity to reiterate the steps the company is taking to restore its reputation among stakeholders who were turned off by Johnson’s approach. These steps included bringing back coupons, revising its marketing and sales strategies and reviewing leadership positions. The summit was one platform, among many, that JC Penny has used to attempt to win back its core customers.

Smart move—the kind we often advise clients to consider. When a past or present executive makes a public blunder, seize the opportunity to educate and inform stakeholders about your business today.

Yes, you can reduce the impact that a boss has on the brand. But you can take the time to develop and deliver consistent and relevant messages across multiple channels that will help prevent key stakeholders from becoming reactive to what they read or hear instead of responsive to what they know.

Remember that in this 24-hour news cycle, everyone can turn into a journalist with the click of a smartphone. If you’re a boss, watch what you say and when you say it.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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