Bieber gets booed – what that teaches us about reputation management.


Music awards are warm-hearted events where peers congratulate each other – where country singers get applauded by rap artists, and where R&B stars are lauded by punks. It’s one big family. Music is a generous business. Well usually.

Sure, there was the infamous Brit award ceremony when Jarvis Cocker interrupted Michael (this is for the children) Jackson during the late superstar’s speech. Jackson had forgotten that this was a music award ceremony – and not a Saviour of the World ceremony.  But this incident was the excception. By and large musicians are polite.

Not so today when at the Billboard Music Awards pop idol Justin Bieber was booed by a large section of the audience when he went up to accept the Milestone Award.

Booing? Bieber was dumbfounded, and momentarily speechless before he proceeded to tell the audience that all the other publicity in his life (presumably the recent string of bad PR) should not take away from the fact that he is an artist and this is “all about the music.”

He had a point surely. How many in the music industry have a spotless life. When a Chris Brown is  arrested for domestic violence, or an Usher sells out, interrupting his fragrance promotions to be paid a million dollars to perform at a private function for the son of Libya’s ghastly dictator Qaddafi; the music biz tends to look the other way.

So what has Bieber done to upset his fraternity? Surely his recent throwing-up on stage was not the cause. Or the alleged dope smoking. Hello, you’d wipe out the entire industry if that was suddenly a crime. Perhaps what did it was his recent signing of the visitors book at the Ann Frank museum (expressing that had Ann lived, she would surely have been a a Belieber..) surely these things were not especially worthy of booing? 

So just now I searched the reactions in the music press and Hollywood media to see what people were talking about. After all, reputation is in the hands of the people. And this time the people had clearly spoken.

So here it is. This is the crime: the thing that earned so much opprobrium. It was Bieber’s lip synching. Here’s an artist who says its “all about the music” and he’s not even singing. To be honest, few others were actually singing at the awards either – judging by comments – but let’s be honest, if you’re a pop idol, manufactured and permed and wardrobed within an inch of your life, the one thing you need to cling on to is credibility. So far in his career Bieber has been able to claim that for all the fad-ism around his image – a modern day Ricky Nelson – he can still actually sing. 

Only these days he doesn’t.

One of the keys to reputation – a dimension that enables Madonna to sustain an amazingly long showbiz career is authenticity. Gaga has it. Great artists basically all have it. Deep down these people can write and sing – they’ve got the real stuff.

The same goes for great companies and other organisations. They each have a talent and they work hard to hone this. Levis still makes hard wearing denim. John Deere still makes reliable tractors. Coca-Cola had a shot at changing the formula – but quickly learned it needed to stick to being the real thing. Cola flavoured, sugared water maybe – but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Whatever we do, our reputations rely on the same substance: authenticity. Bieber has just been smacked down by his peers. Mate, we won’t respect you unless you get real.

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