In my spare time, as you may know, I’m an amateur sleight-of-hand guy. I’m good enough that I’ve been invited to participate in what’s arguably the finest close-up magic convention in the world. And I maintain more than a passing interest in what’s going on in the arena.

So, I was distressed to see a post from a young kid the other day, who talked about a new move he’d developed, and said he’d posted a video preview of it online. He was selling a video tutorial through a website run by one of the finest, and most ethical, guys I know in the field of magic. Trouble is, a few folks reviewed his preview, frame by frame, and it turned out that what he’d posted was not what he was selling. Simply put, without going too deeply into it, he cheated in order to make the video look better, and more appealing to people who’d want to buy his product.

Things got worse. He adamantly denied having cheated…saying the people who’d called him on it must have distorted the video to make it appear that way. And the whole thing turned into a roaring tempest, albeit it in a magic teapot. The guy who was running the website where the video was available for sale interrupted his Thanksgiving to post a message, saying he was looking into it, and…while saying he had not reached any conclusions, would refund anyone’s money who had bought the tutorial and felt cheated.

Finally, the kid ‘fessed up: yes, he’d cheated on the video in order to make the move look even better, so that people would buy his product. Yes, he was sorry…yes, he’d give away the tutorial for free as a way of making amends to the magic community, and no, he’d never do it again.

There are, of course, some valuable lessons for any company here. In no particular order:
Behave in an ethical manner: To be sure, the kid may have fudged his video because he was concerned that others might “reverse engineer” his move and steal it. But by deliberately misrepresenting his product (for what may have been the best of reasons), he has hurt his brand. I won’t say he’ll never recover from it…but the next time he tries to sell something, you know there will be plenty of sniping from the sidelines. And based on this episode, it won’t be entirely undeserved, I’m afraid.
Tell the truth: Even worse than posting a faulty video….the young magician lied to his public, the people he wanted to buy his product, saying that he hadn’t cheated. Not good, and finally confessing may have merely relieved some of the ill-will he generated. If you’re telling the truth from the beginning to your customers and publics, you don’t have to worry about recanting later on. It’s all about reputation management.
Get out in front of the story: The guy who runs the website handled this the best he possibly could have. He said he didn’t have all the facts, but was working to get them. He said that if anyone felt they’d been cheated by buying the kid’s video tutorial from him, he’d either refund their money, or give them double the value of other products. And since he was operating from a position of honesty and being above-board, he was able to get in a message that maybe, just maybe, people shouldn’t be rushing to slam the kid until all the facts were in. By taking the high road, many of the people who were criticizing the kid praised the other guy for operating in an ethical manner, and posted messages that this kind of honesty was precisely the reason they wouldn’t hesitate to buy from him again in the future. Wow…talk about your public relations success.

In the great scheme of things, of course, we’re just talking about a teenage magician and his magic trick. But lessons on reputation management can be found almost anywhere….if only you know where to look.