Projects/businesses gone wrong: What happens when the marketing story inverts?

Are we wearing blinders in our businesses? This story describes the costly nature of reputation failures, even if the public image might appear positive.

Last night at an association gathering, two individuals who have contributed a local project that has a high-profile and received extensive positive publicity in my publications shared observations about rather serious problems. (I’ll disguise details to prevent identifying specifics, in light of my policies not to report negatively on individual or specific organizations in this blog.)

There are major delays, they said, and one person suggested there?is a possibility that, because of serious oversight errors, the building might not meet building code standards. The discussion centred around “who” was responsible for the mess — which includes subcontractors and suppliers waiting for payment and a non-profit facing potentially serious budget over-runs — but I won’t even go near there in naming names.

Wow. What a mess. Eventually the cause/complications might come out into the open, but I won’t be the first to report on them nor will I pour more oil on the fire. (This challenge to journalistic integrity happens occasionally because I am quite embedded in the industry and enjoy plenty of trusting personal relationships. I need to weigh the public good against turning on the heat, and realize that sometimes stories hat might have a whiff of scandal are best un-reported.)

However, the underlying reputation issues remain extremely serious. Word gets around. And there are signs that the unnamed individual and business has?experienced a major negative word-of-mouth hit.

Is recovery possible, and if so, how?

Here we can safely go to my own negative story. Back in 2005/2006, in other words about a decade ago, this business experienced a serious and almost life-threatening crisis. Clients were deserting us, sales were dropping through the floor (much more quickly than we could reduce costs), employee morale was sapped, and most crucially, some major associations — notably the local construction association — decided we had stepped over the line in our business practices.

The problem: Abuse of “special features” where we would get a list of trades from a general contractor or owner, and invite suppliers and subtrades to support the feature with advertising.

While this practice is quite legitimate, the borderline between fair referral marketing and undue pressure to advertise can be breached, and we had done just that. In the most serious case, a general contractor said “no” to our marketing to his suppliers. We went over his head to the project owner, got the list, and started selling.

How did we survive? ?I took a hard look at our business practices, and made several changes. First, we set out clear “no pressure” rules. If the answer is “no” it is just that. We would never assert an endorsement or authority we lacked. And (most importantly) we would treat all client advertisers with respect and do everything we could to deliver value to them. (This blog and my books are related to these initiatives — I figured if I cannot get the advertisers enough business through their ads, we could still provide clients with consulting and other resources to help them succeed at their marketing/business, making an otherwise ineffective $500 advertisement worth every penny.)

The message here: The person/organization cited without naming at the beginning of the story has a serious challenge, but can possibly address it with a forthright and hard look at his business practices, methodologies, and systems. His crisis, like mine, is invisible to the general public. There are no press releases or announcements. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Underlying all marketing, as I have said several times, our actual business practices and reputation from what we do and how we handle our situations, defines our success or failure. Stories are often untold in public; but they cause havoc in private. We must be sure to remove our blinders.

Can you share your own reputation challenge stories? You can email me at or post your observations as a comment.

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