We live in a world where a company’s brand could come under attack at any time — and unfortunately, social media opinions are too often perceived as ‘truth.’ Anyone with a fight to pick can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation. The requirement to constantly manage a company’s reputation has become increasingly more important to the long-term success and profitability of your business. This is a topic that I have been personally interested in for some time. The challenge I see is that most approaches are completely reactionary and are usually in response to negative impressions. There are many quality means and resources to monitor what is being said about your brand, but I also think more consideration must be given to shaping perceptions in the beginning and in an ongoing manner.
I know of many companies who have a team of in-house representatives who monitor all forms of social and traditional media 24/7 and respond accordingly. I also know of many companies who have chosen to outsource this function to firms who can handle everything on the client’s behalf. Both are viable solutions. Not doing anything is a disaster waiting to happen.
Here are my thoughts on 4 steps to define, live, monitor and protect a company’s reputation.
Step 1 – Define How You Want To Be Perceived
This step begins with the mindset that unless you define your brand, others will. This applies to all of your key audiences including: employees, customers, media, industry, investors and competitors. In most cases we work for established companies who wish to transform their brand to an envisioned future and we believe in the power of research to inform how the company and its competitors are currently perceived. With this data, we can evaluate what type of gap exists between current and desired perceptions and then put a brand strategy in place. By clarifying what your brand stands for, you can begin the process of shaping perceptions around how people should think of the company. Basically the idea is to define the kind of reputation you want to have and then consistently communicate it to all audiences, backed by the many reasons (compelling truths) why someone should believe it.
Step 2 – Live The Brand You Want To Be
This is a critical component in realizing long-term success. In our research we have found that one of the top desires of employees is for the corporate executives to live the brand values that have been established. If leadership doesn’t demonstrate the highest standard of brand stewardship, how could they expect anyone else to do the right thing. Success in this area comes from the belief that the corporate brand and the company’s employees are two of the most valuable assets an organization has. Therefore, both need to be nurtured and cared for. It starts with leadership and flows to ongoing commitment of communicating, monitoring and rewarding people. This is not accomplished by a one-time moral-boosting event, but rather the entire team going through a process of hearing, understanding, believing and then living the brand promise and values. At this point, an aligned and engaged team can be very effective in moving the business forward and the customers will likely deepen their trust and commitment to the relationship.
Step 3 – Monitor The Brand Constantly
Now that you have made a clear, branded promise internally and externally, it is critical to monitor how it is being received, accepted or denied. Although it is an extra cost up front, the investment can save significant dollars, time and peace of mind. For brands that have a new promise to communicate, we have found that benchmarking up front makes great sense followed by measuring the impact of the new promise at predetermined intervals. But today that is not always enough. A corporate brand must be monitored constantly as time is of the essence when dealing with adversity. Simple measures begin with setting up Google Alerts and monitoring Technorati. Other tools include Backtype, Yacktrack, Boardtracker, or other social monitoring platform applications to track what is being said about your business. As you can imagine, this process takes a good amount of time, so you must decide if this is something you want to staff or outsource to a professional group.
Step 4 – Protect Your Brand’s Reputation
Damage control begins when the company has made a misstep or becomes the victim of either a vigilante who feels betrayed, or the act of an unethical competitor. Your corresponding actions will be very different based on the situation. If the company has made a misstep, the best course is to address the situation head on, accept responsibility with a commitment to rectify the situation and do just that. Hopefully the company has a crisis communications plan in place identifying the company spokesperson. The company will be well served by a consistent point of view from a respected leader rather than many people offering their inconsistent and often misinformed opinion of the situation. If the company comes under attack from an individual or an unethical competitor, it will likely show up in social stories and search rankings. Social story attacks come from social media sources such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. and they have the potential to go viral quickly and become difficult to suppress. The best approach is to launch your own social strategy to apologize for the situation if it is warranted, be transparent about what is going on and present facts. Search ranking attacks are not as quick or viral as social attacks, but are unfortunately more permanent. With search becoming increasingly more prevalent in business relationships, a negative search link that moves up in the rankings can have a significant impact. In this case, a professional firm with online search expertise is the best solution to rectify the situation. By understanding search algorithms and introducing a significant amount of relevant good news, the situation can ultimately be resolved.
In summary, I believe the best solution for long-term brand reputation management begins by clarifying and living a brand promise that is believable, relevant and emotionally engaging with your core audience. If you stick to this promise and there ever is an issue (which is pretty much inevitable), you’re more apt to get a second chance. In fact, you can probably create an even deeper relationship if you deal with the situation openly and honestly. What do you think?