In 2001, with the world reeling from media reports about the Enron scandal, many agreed it would have been tough to imagine the business world producing villains as classically Machiavellian as Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay ever again. They represented everything that could go wrong with capitalism—the up-or-out, deliver-numbers-at-all costs culture of Enron they created was viewed as a gruesome result of their frenzied profit-making and greed. Skilling barked infamous directives to former CFO Andy Fastow—”get me as much of that juice as you can”—to artificially inflate earnings and unapologetically dupe investors, analysts, employees, and the world at large. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, Enron’s corporate tag line “Ask Why” urged investors and employees to do the one essential thing they all managed to avoid until the whistle finally blew years later.

Fast-forward eight years and Skilling and Lay would seem eerily at home among the cast of stock villains the global credit crisis offered up. Bernie Madoff took greed to an entirely new level—mingling business with the intensely personal to blindside colleagues, friends, and family members alike in a $50 billion Ponzi scheme—a number that scarcely seems real until you take a moment to scan the varied list of his victims revealed recently (e.g. Fairfield, Connecticut Town Pension Fund, $42 million; Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, $18 million…). Pepper those numbers with the actions of Lehman executive Dick Fuld and fallen Wall Street superheroes such as Merrill’s John Thain and the stage looks additionally grim.

Beyond bold newspaper headlines and a financial system paralyzed in a prolonged state of shock, what will the more profound effect of this surreal—almost cinematic—business landscape be? In a word: reputation. The broader, public view of big business—big banks, to be more specific, and financial services as a whole—has been distorted brutally. And you really can’t blame people after what we’ve all seen and been through. The old saw of innocence until proof of guilt has been pitched out the window. The tables have been turned, and the new mainstream belief is that you’re guilty until you prove yourself otherwise—prove you’re not one of them.

It’s no surprise that Edelman’s Annual Trust Barometer—launched this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos—was a hugely over-subscribed session. The survey revealed a world crestfallen and skeptical at the current state of the business environment. In the US and Japan, more than 75 per cent of people have lost faith in business over the past year. In the US, only 38 per cent say they trust business—a 20 percent dip from 2008 to reach the lowest level since the inception of the poll. And remember, Edelman’s poll focuses only on elites.

Numbers released by Gallup (focused on everyday citizens) this January on trust in the financial sector are equally troubling: nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) rate the honesty and ethics of bankers as “low” or “very low.” In light of these findings, one question could have echoed from Davos throughout the climbs and crevices of those surrounding snow-capped Alps: Where have all the good guys gone?

When things have reached this kind of pitch, scrambling for quick reputational fixes won’t do much good. In fact, they can very easily do more harm than good. Jaded and world-weary, governments, regulators, investors, analysts, employees, and the average Main Streeter will see right through you, and are more likely than ever to—as Enron dared us years ago—”Ask Why.” Gone are the days of blind faith in institutions—reputation of all kinds is questioned and dissected and trust of the kind we focused on in the Page Society’s Authentic Enterprise report last year is a precious and precarious thing not easily earned, and all too easily snatched away.

In my recent article “Talking Your Way Through a Downturn” (Financial Times, January 30, 2009), I cited “Keep values and character center stage” as a key step on my communication crib sheet for crisis times. During times of upheaval, adhering to corporate values, such as those espoused by the Arthur W. Page Society, as a navigational compass to guide strategy and communications will assure stakeholders that both your head and heart are in the right place. In the wake of the global credit crisis, never before have reputation, trust, and core values mattered more. But the real lesson here is that they should have mattered all along—that they must matter before and after any crisis breaks so you can lean on them and draw from them to see you through to the other side, widely perceived as a trusted leader amidst the wreckage.

Bernie Madoff and his credit crisis cronies of unaccountability and deception have upped the ante in the world of corporate image and reputation. While awful and upsetting in many ways, perhaps there is a silver lining here. Perhaps Madoff et al can serve as a reputational wake-up call for today’s business world. Corporations must work harder to win back trust and maintain it—and more than ever they must say what they mean and mean what they say. Otherwise people will not buy it, buy your product, or buy your stock offerings, and will continue to more directly and unforgivingly “Ask Why”—why you could have thought they’d ever be so dumb to believe you in the first place.