Virginia Governor Haunted by Ghosts from His Past

Left Unaddressed, Mistakes from Your Past are Fertile Ground for Crises

2/4/19 – – Are you surprised by the role that high school and college yearbooks have played in recent high-profile career-threatening crises?

During last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, nominee Brett Kavanaugh was forced to explain sophomoric entries in his 1983 Georgetown Prep yearbook. And this weekend, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam found himself fighting for his political life when a racist photograph featured on his profile page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook came to light.

Justice Kavanaugh’s and Governor Northam’s battles stem from one of the most common sources of reputational storms for individuals, companies and institutions: their pasts.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient: Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, “Where Crises Come From,” we focus on nine sources from which the majority of survival-threatening situations spring: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. When I discuss these with corporate audiences, past is considered by many executives to be among the most unfair and challenging. I hear these frustrations expressed a lot: “How is it fair for us to be held responsible for things that happened decades ago? And no matter how great we are today, isn’t it impossible to undo something that’s already been done?”

To be able to prevent and prepare for crises, you have to be aware of the fact that your past — fair or not — is fertile ground for reputational erosion. The best way to deal with this reality is with honesty and transparency. Organizations and individuals can control their own destinies as much as possible by encouraging an honest examination of their histories, warts and all. Better that you lead the discussion than allow your detractors or competitors to dig up the dirt and define your heritage.

No, you can’t undo something that has already been done. But you can own your history and take away the opportunity for others to reveal it to the world at the worst possible time without context.

Governor Northam is insisting that he never saw the offensive yearbook profile until it was brought to his and the world’s attention last week. In defending himself during a confusing press conference on Saturday (he withdrew his earlier admission that he was pictured in a photo either in blackface or a KKK costume) he admitted to darkening his face for a party back in his med school days to imitate Michael Jackson. If true, that’s an event he should have gotten out ahead of and apologized for long before he entered public life.

As I advise in the book, if at some point in your life or in the life of your company you harmed people or did something you’re not proud of, find an opportunity to acknowledge it, apologize and make amends. Embracing your history on your time frame, under your control, sure beats waiting passively for your past to come back to haunt you. To prevent a crisis, follow the wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill, who predicted, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

And remember that material published before the advent of digital technology and the internet is still out there waiting to be discovered, scanned and shared. So, if you were featured in a high school or college yearbook, find a copy before your enemies do.

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