The story of X, the differences between on and off-line reputation and the Villejuif leaflet of the mid eighties. Plus ca change…plus c’est la meme chose??

Way back in the mid eighties the name of the Parisian hospital Villejuif coupled its widespread fame as the world hub for the more advanced medical research against cancer (at the time), with a particularly unexpected awareness amongst part of the european professional public relations comnunity:
an anonymous leaflet began to circulate originated from within that hospital with a false signature, in which a list of well known consumer brands were indicated as being cancerous, because they contained coloured chemical components. With dramatic impact on sales volume…

Amazingly, the leaflet not only spread quickly by word of mouth throughout the whole of France; it also became pervasive in many collectives like schools, hospitals and manufacturing plants in many other countries, from North Africa to the UK and Norway, but … was also being secretly used by marketing departments of some of the listed consumer companies, who succeeded in adding names of competitive brands in the attempt to redistribute the devastating market effects (-10/15% of sales in average in the areas where the leaflet circulated over a two month period….) of the Villejuif leaflet.

I had worked on this pandemia for many months in Italy.
It was a mindboggling case for all the reasons you may imagine (totally unpredictable and not monitorable if not when the damage was done).
I remembered having read a great book on what the French call ‘rumeurs’ by Jean Noel Kapferer, the french sociologist… so I visited him in Paris and took with me all the evidence I could, and asked for his advice.
The best advice he gave was not to change media: if you want to stop a rumour you must create another rumour using the same tools and channels. If you pass on to other media you will only help the spreading of the original rumour.

So this we did: we obtained an original letter from the director of the Villejuif hospital saying the leaflet was a hoax, pooled together all the sales forces and distribution outlets we could from the listed brands, in order to closely monitor the situation and promptly intervened when a leaflet was spotted and immediately counter distributet our leaflet.

After a few months of turf war -like a general working at hq’s with a map and many darts wherever the leaflet was spotted- and anxiety on whether the program was working, after some time we began to sigh relief: as we moved in to an area, in a very short time, the original leaflet would no longer be reproduced and redistributed.
And sales of products also began to catch up.

Our success in Italy was quickly reported to European company headquarters of the listed companies and a huge meeting in Bruxelles convened by some 20 companies with all their european public relations directors and consultants (must have been 100 colleagues) and we explained in details how we had operated in Italy.
As far as I know the leaflet has since disappeared.

This story came to my mind a few days ago when I voluntarily participated to a brain storming session on the theme ‘how do you create, destroy and rebuild an online reputation?’.

Although I do not believe that any (on, or off line) reputation may be managed and that relationships instead can, and therefore should be largely prioritized by any director of public relations, there is no doubt in my mind that ‘reputation is what significant (for you) others say about you’ and that, if you are an organization, the indicators which go to compose your reputation are at least:
°the perceived competencies of management
°the perceived attractiveness of your internal environment
°the perceived overall performance
°the perceived quality of products or services
°the perceived commitment to corporate governance.

Other indicators of course may be added, but they all will have in common the term ‘perceived’, which -in turn- implies that, after all -yes!- the quality of your stakeholder relationship systems (which today can be fairly easily evaluated and measured if you make the effort to very carefully identify your stakeholders), is possibly one of the largest, and certainly most quantifiable, contributors to reputation, and very much relies on the how the director of public relations has been able to ensure, through his/her educative and reflexive strategic competencies, a sufficient coherence in how other corporate functions manage their own stakeholder relationship systems and communicative behaviours.

Having said this, the brain storming session (not paid for, nor requested by any single party, but called as a step to the development of a study on differences between on and off line reputation variables) sparked off with the question:
say that X asked you to restore his reputation, what would you advise him to do?

X is one of the best paid and reputed marketing executives of a huge company who recently made a hilarious blunder during a pep-up speech to his sales people at a convention, which was filmed and immediately uploaded on Youtube.

X had flown that same evening across the Ocean and was told about the incident only the following day.
In the meantime his company’s pr department immediately intervened (and clearly had the power to do it) erased the video from Youtube…but too late…the video had already been downloaded by a sufficient number of people to provoke a pervasive on line distribution as well as subsequent off line ironic pick ups on national as well as international mainstream print and television media.

I am told that X, informed about the situation as it developed, was absolutely furious on how his company had handled the incident: sources close to him say he would have preferred an immediate countervideo with himself wearing a donkey’s hat making fun of the incident and admitting he had been a complete idiot.
But, as we all well know, huge public relations departments of large corporations are complex bureaucratic machines which often harm their own interests by being over reactive and plain stupid in the belief to have the power (and often demonstrably do) of killing any rumour…
but not so in social media.

So what does one do?
First question: change media and channel? The Villejuif story says no, but how reliable is it?
Second question: with the exception of the time factor (which however has a highly relevant role) what other variables are different on line from off line in this case?
Third question: does it make sense, in general and in this specific case, to reconstitute a reputation or is it not better to go about creating a new one?

And whichever is the choice, how would you go about it?

Any comments out there?

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2 Replies to “The story of X, the differences between on and off-line reputation and the Villejuif leaflet of the mid eighties. Plus ca change…plus c’est la meme chose??

  1. First question – Always answer in the same media/channel initially, increasing reach as the story/incident moves into other channels – e.g. mainstream pick up from web – or discern the cut-through channel that works across all sectors.

    Second question – Main variables are reach, speed of reach, no control influences to utilise in order to counteract information when the information is wrong. If the information is right – i.e. man makes fool of himself at conference – then front up and sort it out by doing the right things. Also, once the incident/story has become entertainment, not news, or morphs into entertainment news, your approach must alter.

    Third question – Wear the donkey hat. Reputation changes constantly as each incident impacts and re-carves perceptions of the participants. It is not so much about ‘starting again’ as adding another dimension. People and organisations are not ‘flat’, we all make mistakes and get things wrong. The consequences of this mistake were embarrassment and a reputational dent for Mr X – uncomfortable but not catastrophic.

    What would I have done? Met him at the airport with a donkey hat and a handycam, explained the situation, recorded and uploaded what he had to say, then I would have got him to comment on the sites/areas where they played/changed/altered the original material. Then, let it go and move on. This doesn’t always work as occasionally you get someone who has a particular axe to grind, in which case you are then dealing with a different relationship situation (symptom not cause) and need to adjust accordingly.

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