Would you buy infant milk produced in China, regardless of how much the government assured you that it was no longer tainted with melamine?
I wouldn't. I'd even avoid the aisle in the supermarket where it's sold.
That's the critical issue with a tainted brand. No matter how many assurances you have that the brand is now safe, getting customers to believe those assurances and resume using the product is almost insurmountable.
There's too many competitive products out there that don't have any negative or harmful associations. So why should any consumers take any risks?
That's now the dilemma for many employees who worked for the companies at the heart of the federal bailout, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, etc. They are the equivalent of tainted brands, no matter how removed they may have been from sub-prime lending practices.
So, what's a tainted employee to do? While I'm not a recruiter or HR consultant, I do know how some consumers brands have addressed the issue.
Sometimes, they have even persevered (Remember the Chicago Tylenol scare in the early 80's when a sick, twisted criminal laced potassium cyanide in several bottles, murdering multiple people? The product was able to stick around, in part because of changes to anti-tampering laws and new packaging requirements).
So here are a few PR ideas for tainted employees, based on my experience with consumer products and services:
1) Address the issue up front and tell how honest and accountable you are. Give examples. Write a blog and provide daily updates about your thoughts. Give people plenty of opportunities to learn what your values are.
2) Provide testimonials, real good ones. Get people to vouch for you in writing, with their name and audio remarks.
3) Be relentless and kind at the same time. Stay in front of people as much as possible. Don't overwhelm them, but at the same time, don't give them any opportunity to forget about you or your message.
4) Repackage yourself. Elaborate on your core competencies, values and what you can achieve, not where you worked.
Tainted brands - whether they are employees, products or services - will have an uphill battle, especially in today's super competitive marketplace. But life isn't fair. So it's best to keep swinging, and try harder. Besides, what's the alternative?