When I was a kid, and I read Highlights magazine, there was a cartoon feature called “Goofus and Gallant,” in which two boys – one slovenly, lazy and rude and one forthright, hard-working and polite were faced with identical situations. Goofus always did things poorly, Gallant always did the right thing. And as hokey as the convention was, it must have made an imapct on my because I refer to it all the time.
I was thinking of this just last week when two events occurred almost at the same time that both dealt with reputational management. This is an important issue to me as far as this blog goes because as we all know, the insurance industry has a chronic image problem. So much so, in fact, that when I bring it up to industry professionals, the most common response is what behavioral scientists might called learned helplessness: everybody hates us, so why bother trying to fix it? Being one of the most reviled industries around, yet delivering things like life and health insurance, elicits little more than a collective sigh and shrug. I can see why. But I still don’t think it’s too late for the industry to turn things around reputationally, mainly because this industry does an enormous amount of good. Well more than any ill that comes along with it, to be sure. And when you’re up against an ignorant public and a patently unfair set of expectations for the industry, improving its collective reputation is going to be a long, hard slog to say the very least. But it’s a worthwhile one. For every time somebody decides whether or not to file a lawsuit, write a sleazy news story, or pass an antagonistic set of laws, it’s the industry’s reputation that will factor in to that decision making process. There are industries with pockets as deep as this one that do not suffer the same degree of villainization. To get into that rarified air should be the goal.
To that end, I’d like to share a Goofus and Gallant on corporate reputation. Let’s start with the Goofus.
Recently, a vegan food publication called VegNews got busted by its own readers for using stock photography of meat dishes to illustrate its vegan (as in not using any animal products whatsoever) recipes. For vegans this is a really big deal, as many of them are vegan for both moral as well as health reasons. (I am a vegan for health reasons only. I still use leather, for example.) For me, this was a serious publishing breach of trust with the readers. You can see my comment on the Treehugger post I linked to, but know this, VegNews’ duplicity was enough to get me to write to FOLIO and request that they have their “Best Enthusiast” award for 2010 rescinded. Frankly, the entire staff should feel the burn on this, but the lead editor and art director should both resign, mainly because their explanation for using photo fakery is weak and because they implicated the rest of the staff in it rather than taking the blame themselves. (Long story short, VegNews claims that custom photography is too expensive and there are not enough stock images to be found of vegan dishes, so they have no alternative but to Photoshop things like spare ribs into looking like they are not actually meat dishes. It’s a thin line of reasoning, especially when there are plenty of good food blogs where folks photograph food on their own using little more than a nice camera, a bounce flash and a little skill.)
Why does this matter so much? Because in publishing it is paramount to run an ethical publication. If you start making dodgy calls at the 11th hour, then you will start making them at the 10th, hour, the 9th hour and so on until you are simple in the business of making dodgy calls. One does not measure ethics or honor, for that matter by degrees.
The second lesson to learn is that you do not mess with vegans. They have the fervor of suicide bombers and the reach of the mafia. The world should be thankful that all they want is to not eat animal products. If they had a fixation on accumulating gold, the world economy would crash. It will be really interesting to see VegNews aggregate ad volume over the next six months. Count on a double-digit dip.
The third and final lesson to learn is that while VegNews publisher Connolly comes off as less-than-contrite about all of this (especially in his NPR interview, which shows, among other things, that this small vegan pub’s error became a national news story), at least he is trying to crowdsource the solution by asking VegNews readers themselves to provide the publicstion with vegan photos for the book to use. In a social media context, this is pretty smart. In a publisher-taking-responsibility context, it comes off as trying to turn the tables on ones detractors, though.