Hugh Henderson: Sport and business - managing reputations

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Marketer Hugh Henderson looks at a common vulnerability of sport and businesses - a vulnerability to reputational damage.
Hugh Henderson
Hugh Henderson

Like many people, I would have loved to have had a career playing sport. Unfortunately my ability didn't match my desire, so I went into the business side of sport and have worked there for more than 20 years.

It has become ever-more apparent to me that when it comes to sport and business, each can take lessons from the other - particularly when it comes to managing a crisis that can threaten reputation and perception.

In general, sports have something that businesses want - a fan / customer base with a strong positive disposition towards a team, its brand and its people. In business we spend millions trying to replicate this strong emotional bond, and it's rarely easy. Because of this deep connection to fans, followers and consumers, what happens in sport is often more public than what happens in business. This has pros and cons, in that while wrongs can be very obvious and well-publicised, so too can the amends.

What sport and business have in common is their vulnerability to reputational damage as a result of the actions of a party (or parties) involved. The investigation into match-fixing in international cricket is a prime example, and how this is handled by everyone involved will ultimately define how the sport emerges from scandal.

As with most sporting scenarios, there are valuable lessons that can be taken by business when damage to reputation and public perception is a possibility:

Plan for it!

You may think you're immune, but that would be a mistake. Damage is a real risk for any company, it is just the scale that varies. All businesses need an up-to-date plan that can be implemented immediately in a crisis situation, or if there is an issue to be managed.

Review your plan/s regularly

Communication channels change as social media evolve, so any plan must be reviewed annually to ensure its relevance.

Admit any wrongdoing or errors publicly

To employ a cricket term, any issue of reputational damage must be front-footed. At the very least, doing so demonstrates acknowledgement of a problem and willingness of the organization to address and fix it.

Deal with it quickly

Any delays only encourage suspicion and foster rumour and innuendo. If you stay silent on a matter of public interest, the silence is filled with speculation and questions, and the matter becomes more public. The sooner you explain and start to right any wrongs, the sooner everything will cool down. In cricket's case this has been a major failing, in that the situation has been in the public domain without any indication that a conclusion is imminent.

Tell people what you plan to do, and then fulfill your promises

This is the most critical part of reputation management in a crisis. Any organisation can do all of the above, but if they don't communicate what they plan to do to resolve a problem, and then do it, the damage will be irreparable.

Be patient

Recovering from reputational damage takes time, often years. Those affected by it need to have their faith restored, and the only lasting way to do this is through consistent action over time.

Keep your people motivated and challenged

Reputational damage typically results from people who are in a comfort zone either taking a shortcut or taking their eye off the ball. Work to keep those in your organization stimulated and focused, and make sure they understand where risk lies.

Learn from it so that it doesn't happen again

This is very important, and may require the revisiting of your whole strategic plan. If you have experienced a public crisis before, a second one is likely to be all the more intense.

- NZ Herald

Hugh Henderson is a senior marketer with Volom, based in Hawkes Bay. He is the former CEO of the Central Districts Cricket Association and a former senior manager at the New Zealand Rugby Union.

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