Taylor Swift and compliance risk management

Taylor Swift is one of the most famous and successful pop music stars of the last decade. She has dominated the charts, the front pages of tabloids, and the trending posts on social media for years, as much for her songs and music videos as for her romantic exploits and friendship feuds. In an era of being famous for being famous, Swift is a special kind of celebrity who presents a public personality that takes deep advantage of this trend while still giving commercial justice to her origins as a country pop singer. In this dichotomy, Swift has both fans and detractors on both sides – those who are enthralled by the mystique of her celebrity image are just as engaged with the public brand of her persona as those who actually have any interest in her music itself at all.

With this source of her visibility on the music charts and in front of the paparazzi camera lens, it is no surprise that Swift has experienced her share of growing pains on the world stage. Swift’s eponymous album was released in 2006 when she was just 16 years old; at the time of her most recent release, Reputation, in November 2017, she was 27 years old. The generational changes any person experiences during the intervening years are transformative on all levels – personality, relationships, career, worldview.

To go through these phases and changes in front of the whole world, means that your choices and their contexts and subtexts are part of a powerful public dialog. A specific aspect of Swift’s fame has been that her fans and detractors alike are preoccupied with parsing the similarities and differences between the public face Swift presents in her music and media appearances and clues for what her private, undiscussed motivations and ambitions might be.

Swift’s public image has been negatively impacted in recent years following several high-profile feuds with other celebrities such as Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian West. Those wishing to question her motives or critique her actions have had plenty of fodder. The contradictions in her established image and her possible schemes and attention-getting frauds have fueled many a comment thread on social media. Swift’s most recent album is therefore aptly named Reputation and takes direct aim at this critical focus about her identity.

The change in Swift’s position in popular media due to the critical reception of what is, in reality, her brand strategy, presents a compelling case study in reputational risk. Even though one’s reputation is based largely on perception or even assumption and innuendo, it has a very real effect on public standing. This is true for Swift who is an individual representing her brand and work, just as it is true for an organization representing its business strategy, product or service line, and client relationships. It is especially amplified by those with a large internet presence, as the nature of online interactions in the digital age is to inspire investigation and critical judgment. As the saying goes, you can never really delete anything from the internet, and that proves true time and again – especially when statements by or images of someone like Swift can generate discussions and debates bigger than the original post ever could have been.

Therefore reputational risk presents a challenge to high-profile individuals and brands that is hard to reconcile with desires for publicity and competitive attention and impossible to control once a controversy or reaction has been ignited, innocently or otherwise. The morality of reputational identity and the necessary efforts to maintain and construct it together create an important exercise in defining and adhering to a strategic, values-based approach.

The changing fortunes and public opinion of a celebrity like Swift can be easily translated to the organizational context, where business entities rely on their public profile and engagement with consumers and stakeholders to maintain competitive edge. Corporate identity and credibility is incredibly valuable and also inestimably vulnerable to reputational risk. Negative news articles, mentions of companies pursuing legal but unpopular business strategies, involvement in politically complicated regions or activities, and other conduct that puts companies on the razor’s edge of popular opinion can have disastrous effect on a brand and its interests.

Management of reputational risk for organizations should take a common sense approach. Compliance training materials often refer to one of two tests: would you want to read about this on the front page of a newspaper, or, would you be comfortable discussing this action in public, say at a dinner party, with someone you admire, like a parent or mentor? If the answer is no then the action or strategy is not advisable. Having the possible public outcome from individual or organizational actions in mind before the activity is undertaken helps to maintain a view on consequences and hopefully, therefore ground the decision in practical ethics.

For a broad take on Taylor Swift and the contemporary value of reputation, check out this opinion piece in the Financial Times.

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