Cheaters never win, in love and reputation

September 17, 2015

By: Angela Carmichael

As FleishmanHillard in Toronto prepares to unveil our latest Authenticity Gap research results on September 22, the need to take stock of how reputations and brands are made and lost has never been more obvious. In today’s connected world, public opinion is everything. That’s why we looked at over 150 companies across 20 industries in Canada. Our proprietary research aims to identify the gaps between what a company says it does and what the public believes is true.

Although the brand examined in this post was not included in our research, it is an excellent example of how quickly a reputation can unravel. In case you spent the summer under a rock (or perhaps enjoyed an extended vacation), here is some background.

Beginning in mid-August, people around the world witnessed a tangled web of deception unfold ironically from the Ashley Madison fiasco. The website that acts as an anonymous hub for its membership seeking extramarital affairs suffered a data breach exposing the names, addresses and financial details of more than 30 million “trusting untrustworthy” (and almost exclusively male) customers. But it didn’t end there: the breach also unveiled questionable business practices whereby customers were charged fees to have their information permanently deleted without the company actually doing so.

In the context of this particular PR nightmare, the word trust is a tad oxymoronic, and herein is the challenge ahead for the executive team tasked with fixing the ongoing fallout. In the wake of a crisis, one of the first questions any good business leader needs to ask is how to regain the trust of the customer.

But what happens when in the wake of a data breach, it is discovered that your business practices are not in synch with your brand promise? At FleishmanHillard, we always counsel clients who are dealing with difficult situations that the truth will set them free and to let the core values of the company guide decisions. Be authentic. Be transparent. Be truthful.

A data breach alone is enough for most companies to handle and we’ve seen companies like TJX, Target and others suffer the consequences as it related to their relationship with customers. So how does a company whose core values are built around facilitating deception recover from the fact that it deceived its own customers? The core values of Ashley Madison now brought to public light are antithetical to the definition of trust in human relationships—be it business or personal. The company’s success was built on a model that exploited the breaking of trust, but its fall from grace is the public knowledge that that same exploitation also applied to its business practices, its leadership, its ethics and ultimately its relationship with its own members.

So will the Ashley Madison website survive this PR crisis? My best guess is no. This is not your textbook crisis situation.

This brand promised to help married people cheat easily, confidentially and securely. What is now very clear is the gap between its brand—what they say about themselves—and reputation—how they behave—has significantly widened this past summer and the fix is not as simple as an apology, a bouquet of flowers and a promise to never do it again.

Unlike Ashley Madison, most brands don’t operate in the business of deception, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t gaps. Do you know where they are? And more importantly, what are you doing to close them?

Stay tuned for more updates on Authenticity Gap research findings for Canada in the coming weeks.

Angela Carmichael is Senior Vice President & Senior Partner, General Manager in FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice in Toronto. You can reach her at angela.carmichael@fleishman.ca.