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 one’s detractors, though.

The bottom line is this: if VegNews does not have the resources to style food, then fine. Don’t style food. That is the central argument here that they seem to be missing. That pub seems to think that you can only show pictures of styled food to an audience that largely rejects conventional ideas of what food is supposed to consist of, look like and taste like. Indeed, VegNews was duplicitous to its readers. But perhaps the deeper, more troubling sign is that somewhere along the line, from empassioned startup to slick consumer mag, VegNews lost its way and truly fell out of step with who its readers really are. When the magazine and its audience are truly two different sets of people, all kinds of bad things happen.

In an age where print media is still under great pressure to perform, the way in which VegNews stumbled is an important cautionary tale for all publishing professionals. It can happen to the best of us, but none of us can afford it. There are those who feel that they can – or worse, that they must. We have seen it (and to some degree, we are still seeing it) with VegNews. Perhaps the best we can hope for that enough people take this event to heart that it will be a little longer than usual before we see something like this happen again. Because we will, sadly.

That’s the Goofus story of this post. VegNews cut corners, got caught, won’t own up to it, got splashed on national media, and will feel the pinch for it in the long run.

The Gallant story comes, from all places, from the Philadelphia Eagles.

As you might know, I recently lost my father. What I did not mention is that he was a lifelong Eagles fan, holding season tickets for at least 30 years. Ironically, the two times the Eagles hit the Super Bowl, he could not attend either time because of health reasons. But this man’s blood ran green, to the point that he was buried as if he was on his way to a game, in his favorite Eagles-embroidered button-down, and with his trusty binoculars. For him, it was a perfect sendoff.

As my father was in his final days, my father-in-law wrote the Eagles organization telling them about my dad and asking them if they could perhaps write him a letter to lift his spirits. Alas, my father died before the Eagles could get a letter to him. But upon of learning of my Dad’s death, we got a call from their chief operating officer, who not only sent me his personal cell number, but offered himself to assist in some way to incorporate my father’s love of this team into the eulogies we had planned for him on the day of the funeral.

Now, to give a sense of how fast-moving this was, our contact with the COO was on the night before the funeral, at 10pm, when I left hims a message thanking him for his willingness to help. I could not imagine what the Eagles could do on such short notice, but I asked if they would not mind if we mentioned their team as we remembered my father. What the Eagles did was by the time I awoke the next morning, there was in my e-mail inbox, a personal letter from head coach Andy Reid, expressing his condolences for the passing of my father. It was an awesome thing to read. Even more awesome was by that morning, my brother, who intended to eulogize my father, was blanking hard. He just did not know what to say. I gave him the letter, which he read. And when the E-A-G-L-E-S! cheer went up, it shook the walls of the funeral home.

Why do I mention this? Because the Eagles didn’t need to get back to me. They owed me nothing. And yet, they did not just reach out at a difficult time, they did so with remarkable speed and compassion. They gave my family something it really needed at a time when it really needed it the most. And in so doing, they helped not just my family, but about 100 other people deal with my father’s passing with more smiles than tears.

But more than that, I have told this story over and over and over again. And almost every time I have done it, I have converted somebody into an Eagles fan. It is not easy to root for the Eagles, let alone become one of their fans. Eagles fans have a rep for being a pretty rough and tumble bunch. And the Eagles themselves have a history of disappointing their fans on the field. Plus, folks do love to hate on the team. But with every time I tell this story, I see somebody’s view of the team instantly and irrevocably shift to the positive. And all on the back of a single letter written by a single guy. Does this mean the Eagles will earn another $100 million next year? I doubt it. But it does show that even if you’ve got an entrenched negative view of yourself, it is never too late to change it, especially if you go about it with a genuine intent to help others without regard for what’s in it for yourself.