Two separate developments, occurring within a fortnight of each other in the past month, powerfully highlight the need for major Barbadian entities — from central government and its various agencies to the private sector and civil society organizations — to pay serious attention to reputation management, a critical issue in the modern media-driven environment.
I refer, in the first instance, to the arrests of two top officials and an employee of regional conglomerate, Goddard Enterprises Ltd (GEL). Namely Board chairman Charles Herbert who simultaneously served as chairman of the Private Sector Organization, non-executive director Christopher Rogers and employee Walter Prescod. They subsequently appeared in court on drug-related charges.
In the second case, which occurred as Barbadians were caught up in the final weekend of Crop Over revelry, former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Donville Inniss, was arrested in the United States on money laundering charges. Once widely seen as the front-runner to take over the leadership of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) following its crushing defeat in the May 24 general election, Inniss was barred from leaving the United States until his trial.
What are the implications of both developments for Barbados? They mean that Barbados now has an unfortunate blemish on its image and reputation and will inevitably attract some degree of suspicion. As a result, going forward, business and other dealings with the Government and local private sector are likely to be subjected to a lot more scrutiny, especially to ensure compliance with laws in other jurisdictions.
The fact is that until now, Barbados, when compared with some other Caribbean countries, was generally seen by the international community as a clean jurisdiction. This, notwithstanding persistent rumours about corruption and other wrongdoing allegedly involving both Government and private sector officials that often would be the subject of quiet discussion at cocktail parties and other social events.
However, given the fact that charges were never brought against anyone, Barbados was given the benefit of the doubt. All of that has changed now. While the principle of innocent until proven guilty also applies in these two cases, it is the fuelling of suspicion that naturally arises from the bringing of charges that ought to be of concern.
Going back to ancient Rome which has had a profound influence on modern legal and governmental systems and, to some extent, standards of conduct for public officials, it was recognized that persons in positions of public trust must be like Caesar’s wife — above the slightest suspicion. Where there is suspicion, public trust is always undermined.
In countries that respect the constitutional right of an accused to a fair trial, a court of law always ensures that an opportunity is provided for evidence forming the basis of charges to be scrutinized and tested to establish whether a case against the defendant does exist beyond reasonable doubt. The court of public opinion, however, does not operate on such principles.
What people think or believe to be true, as opposed to knowing if it is indeed true, is the dominant factor at work in the court of public opinion. Hence, an accused person can be acquitted in a court of law but still be considered guilty in the court of public opinion. The case of O.J. Simpson is a good example. It so happens because human beings are essentially creatures of fickle emotion rather than creatures of sound reason.
The world, unfortunately, is not fair. Perception formed on this basis sometimes contributes to the ruin of reputations. There is always an erosion or loss of trust when reputations are ruined. Countless persons and organizations have been so destroyed because when trust is undermined, vital relationships are also undermined. And that explains why, increasingly today, organizations the world over are paying more serious attention to the management of their reputations.
Like in so many other areas, Barbados also is lagging behind in this regard. Reputation management is not taken seriously enough, especially in the corporate sector, because a correlation is generally not seen between the maintenance of vital relationships, the bottom line and overall business success. The fact is that people generally do business with people and organizations that they trust on the basis of having a good reputation.
In North America, most major corporations demonstrate such awareness by having full-fledged communications departments headed usually by a Vice President. Their role extends way beyond the production and dissemination of the occasional press release which is what many Barbadian companies consider to be good public relations. The world has moved beyond this limited understanding long ago.
Indeed, the emphasis now is more on strategic communication which recognizes the vital importance of relationships and seek to nurture and maintain them through continuous engagement using multiple media channels. Strategic communication essentially involves crafting message to support the advancement and achievement of key objectives. One such objective is a good reputation.
From as far back as Biblical times, a good reputation was recognized as the most precious asset which anyone can have. In the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, for example, the writer tells us that “A good reputation and respect are worth much more than silver or gold.” Reputation, however, is a fragile commodity, underscoring the point that it should never be left to chance because too much is at stake.
A good reputation often takes years to build but can be easily destroyed in a matter of hours by a single unfortunate incident, especially in the context of the current media age where people have unprecedented opportunities to publicly comment on issues. Most crises that undermine trust and put reputations at risk are, to some extent, predictable. Having access to strategic communication expertise, specifically in risk issues and crisis management, provides organizations with such a capability.
Drawing on my strategic communication training to assess its response, it seems that GEL was somewhat unprepared to handle the recent crisis. In the first place, it took too long to issue a public statement on the issue, unintentionally providing an opportunity for members of the general public to have a field day engaging in wild speculation on social media. Crises always require a prompt and decisive response that seeks to eliminate doubt and to provide reassurance.
From the moment the company became aware of the incident, it should have moved speedily to set the agenda by defining what the issue was. It should have also required the two Board officials to step down immediately pending the outcome of the matter. If I were writing a term paper on crisis management, GEL’s response would make an interesting case study. Hopefully, other companies will learn from the experience.
At the political/governmental level, it is heartening to note that Prime Minister Mia Mottley seems determined not to allow her administration to repeat the fatal mistakes of the previous DLP administration that contributed ultimately to eroding public trust and damaging its image and reputation. She has put in place effective arrangements for government communication and the management of the administration’s image and reputation.
The appointment of a Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Public Affairs must be seen in this context as well as the appointment of a Director of Communication. Also, the high priority given to the enactment of Integrity in Public Life legislation. It is clear that Ms Mottley appreciates a key point made by Al Ries and Jack Trout in Positioning, a marketing book which has had major influence in defining modern communications.
“With communication going for you, anything is possible,” Ries and Trout posited. “Without it, nothing is possible.”
(Reudon Eversley, a practising Anglican, is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)