"People hate him. Boy, wow, do they hate him." Quotes like this seem standard for disgraced public executives, foreign dictators, and your nearest personal injury lawyer; but to hear one of the greatest baseball players to ever live described in such a way is shocking. After all, baseball remains as American as apple pie, and the next best thing to pie is a home run. Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez was always the best at hitting home runs.
This is why A-Rod's reputation is puzzling. How is it possible that someone so seemingly suited for the public eye could fall so far? What's more surprising is how with such a tattered reputation after being suspended from baseball and isolated from family and friends, he restored his image. The A-Rod we now know headlines the ESPN Sunday night baseball broadcast and has become part of a well-loved celebrity relationship with popstar Jennifer Lopez?
A-Rod's fall from grace and his eventual redemption are instructive not just for future Hall of Fame sluggers, but for companies in the public eye that are managing reputation and recovering from reputational crisis. A-Rod's journey lends itself to three key insights.
1. Be authentic
A-Rod's struggles in the public eye began far before he was accused of and suspended for steroid usage. There were repeated criticisms about his seeming inauthenticity, aloofness with the media, and inability to connect in a meaningful way with fans.
While teammate Derek Jeter's successes on the field and exemplification of New York values made him the city's favorite son, A-Rod was the city's black sheep. His repeated failures in the clutch and inauthenticity with the media proved a stark contrast to Jeter. In addition, Jeter's privacy about his personal life was seen as a mark of a true professional, while A-Rod's unwillingness to engage with fans read as artificially crafted distance.
The reputational costs of this perceived inauthenticity function as an important lesson. Companies can be as successful as Rodriguez was for most of his time on the field, but they will be at reputational risk if they don't form that all important emotional connection with stakeholders. Companies must be genuine, relatable, and human. They need to come across as more than just their products and services, and show that they understand what their stakeholders care about.
2. Admit mistakes
A-Rod's road to reputational decline was accelerated when damaging reports of infidelity and allegations of steroid abuse surfaced in the media. However this alone wasn't enough to tank his reputation. What really made an impact was A-Rod's repeated denial of these rumors, followed by an all-too-late admission of guilt. These attempts to cloud the truth only further distanced him from the public and resulted in even greater loss of trust.
A-Rod's self-inflicted reputational woes convey an important message — what counts is not simply the nature of the mistake, but rather how companies handle the fall out. Companies should attempt to learn from Rodriguez's mistakes and realize that by owning up and taking accountability for missteps, trust with the general public is can be regained.
Having a strong reputation to begin with can also mitigate the impact of any public missteps. A-Rod's preexisting animosity with members of the public didn't help in this regard, which only underscores the importance of proactive reputation management.
3. Know your strengths
So far the story has been entirely negative, but A-Rod is held in fairly high regard now. How did this reputational recovery take place? In short, A-Rod played to his strengths. After serving out his suspension, A-Rod made a concerted effort to allow for increased media access in his life, which showcased his softer, family-oriented side. He took up a role as a guest analyst for various baseball broadcasts where he was able to draw on his knowledge of the game as well as his unparalleled insight as one of the greatest players of all time. By focusing on his strong suits while being more open and transparent, A-Rod was able to change the narrative surrounding him.
A-Rod's personal life, which was once the bane of his reputation, has become a benefit as he entered into a very public relationship with singer Jennifer Lopez. Lopez, perhaps one of the only people able to rival A-Rod for star power, has a great public image — seen as talented, authentic, and easily admired. His engagement to Lopez, and the couple's transparency about their newly blended family, has shifted A-Rod's image from disgraced athlete, to loyal father and partner.
The lessons here are clear for corporations. By focusing on their strengths, companies can control the narrative surrounding their reputations. If they are willing to be more open and transparent, companies can ensure the public views them with trust and admiration. Playing to strengths, either as a commentator or as a corporation, ensures that reputation can stay as strong as possible.