We all know that PR alone cannot repair the reputation of a scurrilous scallywag. Actions speak louder than words, and contrition can only take one so far. Right, Mel?

In fact, in an age when “the whole world is watching” (not to mention recording and posting), actions not only speak louder than words but they also have this indelible quality.

In a somewhat atypical column (TS required), The World is Flat author and esteemed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman takes a look at how reputations are built or toppled in today’s citizen media-fueled environment:

“When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.”

So what does this mean for those of us charged with (and who charge for) managing reputations? Plenty. Command of the language is fine, but actions are redeeming. Leveraging the mainstream media filter can work, but the newly empowered “media mass” dictates our fates. And, ultimately the “crowd” will determine the net effect of even the most well-intentioned actions.

Mr. Friedman’s visit to this subject is pegged to a new book titled How by Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN, a business ethics company:

“Because Seidman’s simple thesis is that in this transparent world ‘how’ you live your life and ‘how’ you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it on their own without any editor. To win now, he argues, you have to turn these new conditions to your advantage.”

Here’s a video clip with Mr. Seidman from BusinessWeek.

“How” is not a new concept. Harold Burson has been in the C-suite for years preaching behaviorial modification as the road to restitution. You simply can’t cure a company’s ills with a press release.

Jet Blue’s David Neeleman learned this the hard way. His mainstream media ubiquity in a time of crisis may have been comforting, but without tangible changes to his company’s policies, it amounted to a hill of beans. The “media mass,” this one included, let him know it in no uncertain terms. From today’s column:

“Ditto in business. Companies that get their hows wrong won’t be able to just hire a P.R. firm to clean up the mess by a taking a couple of reporters to lunch — not when everyone is a reporter and can talk back and be heard globally.”

Lunch. What a concept.