Ebola Takes Down a Reputation

Warren Buffett once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” NBC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman is learning that lesson the hard way.

Snyderman and an NBC crew were in Liberia recently covering the Ebola story when her cameraman contracted the deadly and highly contagious disease. While she has not exhibited any symptoms (indicating she is not contagious), Snyderman and the rest of her team were put under voluntary quarantine as a basic precaution. Yet she and others of her team decided to go for carryout. She apparently waited in the car while another supposed-quarantined colleague went inside a New Jersey restaurant to pick up the food.

Someone spotted Snyderman. The backlash was swift. People on social media and elsewhere pounced with charges of recklessness and hypocrisy. The state of New Jersey changed her quarantine to one that is now legally mandated. Snyderman issued an apology of sorts. One poor decision (breaking quarantine) set off a firestorm. Another bad decision (lame apology) fueled the fire. The result:  the controversy smoldered on and a once-pristine reputation got badly burned.

In terms of crisis communications, here are a few takeaways.

It’s all about trust. Snyderman’s reputation as a medical professional, journalist and public figure is premised on trust. Once the public believed she abused or otherwise broke that trust, rock solid perceptions of authority crumbled to perceptions of arrogance. The public expects those in leadership positions to play by the same rules as everyone else, and often they are expected to adhere to an even higher standard. It’s pretty simple: the public won’t go along with a double standard and they expect people and organizations to follow the rules that apply to the rest of us. Especially in matters that are literally life and death.

There’s no such thing as a secret. Individuals and organizations often get into trouble because they do something in secret and believe they won’t be discovered. From Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, to Ken Lay and Bernie Maddoff, to Lance Armstrong and Michael Vick, there is a long line of tainted luminaries who thought nobody was paying attention. Perhaps Snyderman thought she could dodge the quarantine and go unnoticed despite the fact she’s highly recognizable and smartphone cameras abound. PR 101 says don’t do something on the down low unless you are prepared for it to make headline news.

Direct apologies matter. And then there’s the apology. Apologize fully, without caveats, or don’t bother. In part, Snyderman’s read, “While under voluntary quarantine guidelines, which called for our team to avoid public contact for 21 days, members of our group violated those guidelines …”  She said she knew she was not contagious so there was no real risk. She went on to apologize for the concern she caused, but by not owning it fully with no equivocation, she minimized her very unique role. This was not about her anonymous group breaking protocol; it was about her specifically, NBC’s chief medical correspondent. The public can be incredibly forgiving, but first they want to know you get it, that you are humbled by it and that you are genuinely sorry. By failing to acknowledge that fully, she simply extended the news cycle and damaged her credibility further. You can’t recover and rebuild a reputation until you fully own up to your mistake.

Apparently all this was set into motion because Snyderman wanted some soup. She got it, and paid for it with major damage to her good name and her hard-earned professional reputation. If only she had listened to Warren Buffet … or even Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No soup for you!”                                           

John F. Fitzpatrick is a managing partner at Stratacomm. Contact him to learn more about the firm’s crisis communications offerings.

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