Banking on Bill Gates

By Jennifer Keohane

Leadership vacuums beg to be filled, and the void in the coronavirus response from the Trump White House was black-hole-sized. As the government fiddled while the country was ravaged, tech billionaires stepped into the spotlight.

Their philanthropic giving has raised ethical questions about undue influence on the government, but it is undeniable that their charity was necessary. As Vox reported in April 2020 as the Trump administration dropped the ball, Jack Dorsey of Twitter announced one billion dollars to a new philanthropy. Likewise, Apple donated 20 million masks, and Bill Gates funneled money to build factories to manufacture vaccines even before viable vaccines existed.

Former Health Secretary Alex Azar and Bill Gates in March 2018. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Undoubtedly, the tech industry has donated many more millions in the year since Vox reported those numbers.

For those who study reputation management and character, we can see these charitable actions as deposits into the organization’s bank account of reputational capital. The bank account hypothesis, as it is sometimes known, identifies these attempts to build a positive reputation for an organization or CEO as assets that can be drawn down when reputational challenges emerge. Build a good reputation prior to the crisis and you’ll have a far easier time managing it and retaining public trust.

Indeed, Gates emerged as a visible leader during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some reporters and associates praised his sober and calm public presence. 55% of Americans had a positive image of Gates according to a 2021 poll.

It’s a good thing, too, as the recent news of Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce is forcing withdrawals from the reputational account of the Gates Foundation. It’s not just the divorce of course. Plenty of tech billionaires are divorced.  Tech reporter Theodore Schleifer describes the divorce as a “tabloid melodrama” with “secret boardroom investigations, hushed affairs, and the likes of Jeffrey Epstein.” While the exact details of the scandal are still unfolding, Gates has been shown to have ties (which he underplayed) to Epstein, the convicted sex offender and sex trafficker of underage girls. Likewise there are details about sexual harassment accusations against him and an affair with an employee at Microsoft.  

It remains to be seen whether reputation management techniques will be able to rehabilitate Gates’s image after this scandal. While his positive prior reputation will help, a lot will depend on just how extensive (or expensive) these withdrawals from his reputational bank account turn out to be. Both the context and circumstances and how they are handled will matter here. Clear, consistent, and frequent communication from his spokespeople will help, as research on organizational crises indicates.  

This current scandal is a perfect illustration of the bank account hypothesis as it relates to reputation management. Gates’s own lack of judgment and character may end up tarnishing a massive philanthropic apparatus that does a lot of good in the world.

In short, as we often repeat, character matters.

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