Spin Thicket, Bikini Marketing and Other Swings and Misses in Thought Leadership Marketing
There are lots of inspirational quotes on the topic of failure and how failing is necessary on the...
(Following is Chapter 12 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)
To borrow a phrase from George W. Bush’s now-famous critique of President Trump’s 2017 inaugural address: people are believing some “weird shit” these days.
Such as the following:
Starting on the social media site Reddit and spreading like wildfire across the internet, thousands of people shared content in July 2021 accusing the furniture retailer Wayfair of trafficking children. These charges were not based on police investigations, journalistic reporting, or firsthand accounts.
What evidence was there to support these allegations? None.
The original post on Reddit was pure speculation after the poster found utility closets on the Wayfair site priced at more than $10,000 each—with girls’ names as product names.
The post read:
Is it possible Wayfair involved in Human Trafficking? Or are these just extremely overpriced cabinets? This makes me sick to my stomach if it’s true.
That was on July 9. By the next day, Wayfair was compelled to issue a statement that “there is, of course, no truth to these claims.” Snopes and other sources verified that the rumor was false.
But even now, hashtags like #wayfairtrafficking are active on social media.
In our post-truth world, social media algorithms too often reward behavior that promotes controversy and misinformation. Those who lead cancel-culture crusades and spread conspiracy theories, for example, earn the “social currency” of status and popularity—while rarely being held to account for their damaging claims legally or financially.
That makes this an especially challenging environment for reputation management.
WHAT IS REPUTATION MANAGEMENT?
Reputation has always mattered. We might not have had to worry about cancel culture or bad online reviews in the past, but there’s never been a time when people didn’t gossip with their friends and neighbors about other people.
Consumers today talk about businesses the same way—backed by a social-media megaphone that can make or break a brand.
Think of reputation management as PR playing defense, such as when:
Over the past three decades, I have managed crises ranging from massive telecom outages to workplace shootings and sex scandals.
And while the environment has grown more challenging, one thing that hasn’t changed is this: the best defense is a good offense. The sturdier the reputation you build over time, the better equipped you will be to protect it in critical moments.
REPUTATION MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES TO BUILD AND PROTECT TRUST
Within the Grow With TRUST system, reputation management is arguably the most critical component—because what’s the point in working so hard to build your brand only to risk losing it all in an instant?
The three key pillars of reputation management are as follows:
Pursuing a Grow With TRUST program without strong reputation management is like setting o on a cross-country car ride without fastening your seatbelt. You might make it, but it’s not worth the risk.
Strategy #1: Proactive Reputation Building
One Saturday night years ago, I went to a party at a coworker’s house and a woman there got very drunk. She was a new employee at the newspaper where I worked and was probably nervous. She responded by going too heavy on the liquid courage.
The highlight—or lowlight—of the evening was when she mistook the laundry room for the bathroom and tried to relieve herself in the dryer.
She didn’t show up for work that Monday. We never saw her again.
This is someone who did not manage her reputation well and suffered the consequences.
But let’s imagine the scenario differently. What if, instead of this being a new employee, it had been a reporter who had worked at the paper for ten years? What if she had a reputation for being a hard-working, responsible, and caring person, and this was the first time she had ever had too much to drink in the presence of her colleagues?
That reporter would have shown up for work Monday and been welcomed back with open arms. She would have probably had to take some good-natured ribbing. Maybe her editor might show some concern and ask if things were OK in her personal life. But that would be the end of it; everybody would move on.
That’s the difference between a person we know and respect making a mistake, and someone we don’t.
And it’s the same way for brands.
Channels for Building Your Brand Reputation
Third-party validation and reputation management go hand in hand. Your reputation is much easier to defend if you have established a positive image and strong relationships in the news media, social media, and review sites.
These are the three primary channels for proactive reputation management. They can help preserve your reputation when the time comes. Here’s how:
You never want your first contact with the news media to be during a crisis when you are on the defensive. Work to establish media relationships that will humanize your executives and provide a broader context for your brand.
Also, make sure that when a reporter searches for your brand on Google, they will find lots of positive information to build trust, such as five-star reviews and happy team photos. It will balance their view of your brand.
Many brands—particularly B2B brands—complain that they see little ROI from social media. But social media is not primarily a sales platform; it’s a relationship platform. You are establishing your foothold on a site trusted by millions or, in some cases, hundreds of millions of users.
Having an active presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and other top sites allows you to share your values, comment on the topics of the day, and amplify your thought leadership. It also gives you a solid foundation for interacting with customers and responding to complaints and crises.
Top review sites include Google, Yelp, Facebook, and BBB.org, but beyond those, literally thousands of review sites have emerged for specific niches and industries. Establish a presence on the sites that are most important to your brand, create detailed profiles with images and product descriptions, and then, invite your customers to leave reviews after a transaction or during a follow-up later. This provides context and balance when an unhappy customer leaves a negative review.
Establishing a positive brand presence in these channels is the best proactive step you can take to protect yourself when challenges come. You may also consider another step that will strengthen and provide content for these channels: adopting a social purpose.
Social Purpose: Give Your Brand a Higher Meaning
As we discussed in Chapter 9, buyers today care about more than your product. When buyers make purchase decisions, they often factor in whether the brand is one they wish to align with—based on the brand’s social and political stances and other considerations.
Over the past few years, surveys have consistently shown that more consumers are factoring a company’s values into their buying decisions. Two-thirds of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue, according to the global PR firm Edelman’s research.
Avoiding social issues entirely is viewed negatively by consumers —as a sign that a brand doesn’t care.
And it’s not just buyers; it’s employees, too. Job seekers increasingly seek to work for employers that stand for something besides profits.
How should a brand navigate these new expectations?
You have three choices.
Brands have every right to choose the first or second option. Consumers, however, are increasingly pushing their favorite brands in the direction of social purpose.
Adopting a social purpose means fusing your company’s product offering with a larger vision for making the world a better place. Embracing purpose helps to unify your audiences, giving your brand an edge over those who appear to only care about the bottom line.
In a 2021 survey of one thousand US adults by PR firm Porter Novelli, 73 percent said they were less likely to “cancel” a purpose-driven brand (“Business of Cancel Culture Study”).
Social purpose can also give your reputation management strategy clarity and context.
But social purpose is not like a traditional CSR program:
If you are not ready to embrace a larger “why” for what you do, you’re not ready for social purpose.
SIDEBAR: PURPOSE CAN BE PROFITABLE
For both B2C and B2B brands, purpose can be profitable.
Danish toymaker LEGO is an $8 billion company that generated nearly $2 billion in profit in 2021—a 27 percent increase in revenue over the year before (Whitten 2022; Tighe 2022).
LEGO has long associated its products with helping children learn and grow—to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.”
LEGO extends this brand promise to a larger social purpose. The brand has consistently invested in initiatives to enrich, nurture, and protect the future of children. These include:
Not coincidentally, LEGO ranked as the “most reputable company in the world” in RepTrak’s 2021 annual survey for the second year in a row (LEGO Group).
But purpose isn’t just for B2C products like children’s toys. It can give B2B brands a competitive edge as well.
While some B2B brands have begun viewing social purpose as important to growth, many are unsure how to embed their stated purpose into every aspect of their operations. To build brand trust, both with customers and with employees, your brand purpose must be relevant to your company and customer base.
As an example, in 2018 Dropbox and its founders launched the Dropbox Foundation, which focuses on partnering with nonprofits to promote human rights. As a service that enables millions of users to easily share information, Dropbox’s support for organizations that use information to defend human rights fits their brand.
As the company put it: “A big part of our mission has always been helping our users achieve their missions.”
Four Advantages for Purpose-Driven B2Bs
The advantages for B2Bs adopting a social purpose include:
#1: Differentiating Your Brand Based on Values
There were more than 1,000 initial public offerings on the US stock market in 2021, an all-time record. That was more than double the 480 IPOs the year before—also a record. In a crowded marketplace, having a clearly stated purpose and actions to support it can help differentiate your brand by appealing to buyers’ emotions and values.
#2: Aligning with Your Buyer’s Vendor Selection Criteria
B2B buyers are increasingly responsible for upholding their own companies’ social responsibility initiatives, such as sustainability and DEI. Choosing vendors aligned on these issues is increasingly important to them—and in some cases a mandate.
#3: Making the Purchase Decision Easier
The B2B buying process can take months, even years, involving stakeholders at various levels of the organization. Building strong brand identification and trust with buyers can reduce these sales cycles. Microsoft, for example, makes an even stronger case for its products and services by elevating its CSR programs, such as committing to being carbon negative by 2030.
#4: Attracting Purpose-Driven Candidates to the Company
Today’s workforce increasingly wants to feel connected with the purpose and mission of the companies they work for. Employees want to know they are contributing to the world in some way. Companies with social purpose built into their culture are more likely to attract and retain an engaged workforce.
Strategy #2: Crisis Preparation
When it comes to crisis preparation and planning, the first thing to understand is that you can’t erase reality.
Or as a reputation management consultant I know once put it: “If you suck in real life, you’ll suck on the internet.”
The first step in preparing for a crisis is to take a hard look at yourself—from the viewpoints of others. Use sentiment analysis tools to see what people are saying about you on social media. Read your online reviews with an open mind to find the common threads in customer complaints. Conduct interviews with customers and survey your target audiences to see what they think of your brand.
Correct the issues that surface. They won’t go away by themselves.
There’s no point in putting time and effort into responding to online complaints if you don’t first address the operational issues driving them. Amazingly, nearly a third of local businesses admit in surveys they don’t read their reviews at all. That’s a wasted opportunity to get better.
When you do make improvements to your business, make sure to let your audiences know about it across your marketing channels—and thank your critics for their feedback. They will be flattered, and more likely to purchase from you again, too.
Failing to Anticipate Is Often the Biggest Mistake
If your brand has made mistakes in the past, it’s likely you will make them in the future, too. We all do, after all.
The key is to catch as many of those potential missteps as possible while they are still being kicked around internally. Run them through the filter of your audience research. When you know what your customers value and expect from your brand, you should be able to stop most crises before they start.
Take Swedish vegan milk brand Oatly, long a favorite of eco-friendly consumers. In 2020, private equity firm Blackstone—led by CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who had served in the Trump administration—spearheaded a $200 million funding round for the company. The company justified the investment in a July 2020 announcement as channeling “more capital flows into sustainability” from across the political spectrum.
Oatly should have expected its customer base to have issues with Blackstone, given President Trump’s views on climate change and other environmental issues. Unfortunately, Oatly made little effort to educate and win over eco-influencers, even weeks after the announcement.
Predictably, by the end of August, these influencers had mobilized a boycott. It kicked o with a tweet by @LessWasteLaura, a climate activist who had just learned of Blackstone’s investment. Many customers responded as if Oatly had cut a secret deal behind their backs—even though it had been publicly announced more than a month prior.
Oatly had an opportunity to raise awareness and make their case to activists before the controversy became a cancellation effort. Instead, they lost control of the narrative, leading to the loss of some of the brand’s most vocal ambassadors.
The shedding of core fans has left the company vulnerable to a torrent of negative stories and business setbacks. Oatly has been accused of “greenwashing,” or misleading consumers about its sustainability practices, as well as overstating revenues and other forms of deception. Its former activist base has been nowhere to be found.
SIDEBAR: HOW TO FIGHT CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Conspiracy theories are more frequent, more widespread, and less easily contained than ever before—as we described, at the outset of this chapter, in documenting the false allegations against Wayfair.
So, if your brand comes under attack, as Wayfair’s did, what’s the best way to fight back? Here are three tips based on my years in crisis communications and reputation management.
#1: Calibrate Your Denial Carefully
As most brands would, Wayfair quickly and flatly denied any truth to the rumor. This is a necessary action, but it’s just as important not to make too big a deal out of it. If you shout denials from the rooftops—correcting every false post, issuing multiple press releases, etc.—it will hurt more than help you.
Overdoing it will also further cement your brand’s association with the conspiracy theory, as well as alert users who were previously unaware of the rumor.
#2: Deprive the Rumors of Oxygen with Positive Messages
Conspiracy theories don’t stand up to rational analysis, so a reasoned denial will only take you so far. A more sustainable strategy is to counterprogram by investing in PR campaigns that share the positive things your brand is doing in the community.
Where appropriate, you can even fight a negative rumor more directly. For example, if a conspiracy theory suggests your brand is anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, or opposed to another group, prominently include members of that group on your website and in community outreach efforts.
Go beyond window dressing with substantive action, such as creating diversity and inclusion programs at your company and donating to nonprofit organizations. That will protect your brand far better in the long run than an endless stream of denials.
#3: Encourage Your Customers to Tell Your Story
Whether denying a false rumor or countering it with positive messages, there’s still one problem: it’s you talking. That’s why it’s important to encourage your customer advocates to be visible and vocal in support of your brand.
Provide a great product and outstanding customer service so your customers will want to tell everyone about it. Set up programs to periodically nudge your customers to post reviews on Google, Yelp, G2, TrustRadius, or other review sites. There’s no better way to build trust with consumers than with third-party validation.
Run a Check on Your Execs to Prevent Surprises
Don’t stop with your brand or product when anticipating issues, though. Take a close look at your brand’s representatives—your executives and subject-matter experts—as well.
Cancel culture can come for anyone, including your CEO. Look at the example of Condé Nast and its publication Teen Vogue. In May 2021, Alexi McCammond, the newly appointed editor-in-chief, was forced to step down because of tweets she had written ten years earlier—when she was seventeen.
Search for anything questionable your execs and spokespeople have posted on social media—ever—and delete it. Do a Google search as well. And, if you haven’t already done so, run a background check that confirms professional credentials and reveals any past legal issues. It’s worth it.
Don’t Use Your Crisis Plan as a Crutch
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: that crisis communications plan every consultant says you should have? It’s an important tool for planning—but it’s not enough to get you through a crisis. Too often, it’s used as a crutch by those fearful of taking bold, decisive action.
Years ago, during a massive satellite outage that affected telecom services for fifty million Americans, I was the face of the crisis for my industry, simply because the other telecom companies affected were slow to release statements and make themselves available to the public. I’m sure all those companies had crisis plans—but they still didn’t pick up the phones to field calls from reporters seeking answers.
I honestly can’t recall if I looked at our crisis plan during that outage. I was too busy gathering the latest information available and then, every hour on the hour, doing stand-up interviews for local and national TV. My team ensured that the trade media got the more technical information they were seeking, too.
We put ourselves—vulnerable and imperfect—front and center. And that was enough. Our response had a halo effect on our brand that reinforced our claim of being the industry leader.
Get on the Same Page with the Lawyers
In my experience, the most valuable benefit of a crisis plan is that it gets the company’s executives, marketers, communicators, and attorneys on the same page on how to approach crises.
I’ve found that without a clear plan, PR people and corporate attorneys usually end up butting heads.
Attorneys tend to focus first on reducing legal risk, which is important—but this approach can increase reputation risk if taken too far. For example, responding to a crisis with “No comment” may be the safest option legally, but it’s the ultimate PR mistake.
When Exxon failed to send its CEO immediately to the scene of the infamous Valdez oil spill, it was evident that lawyers, not PR people, were behind the decision. The episode is widely considered one of the greatest PR blunders of all time.
Strategy #3: Monitoring and Response
Many people are unaware that the modern public relations industry grew out of a reputation management crisis. On October 28, 1906, a Pennsylvania Railroad train crashed, killing more than fifty passengers. The railroad called on one of PR’s founding fathers, Ivy Lee, to help (News Museum, n.d.).
Lee might not have had the vision of Edward Bernays, but he was among the first PR practitioners to convince big corporations to come clean when they made mistakes.
Before Lee, US railroads mostly downplayed accidents, some- times refusing to admit they occurred. They hid evidence and kept journalists away from crash sites. Lee changed all that by actually inviting reporters to the scene, holding on-site briefings, and making executives available for interviews.
The result was what scholars characterized as the first positive news coverage for the railroad industry in years.
Lee worked with speed and transparency to respond to reporters and protect the railroad’s reputation. That’s the same way it works today—except that events move exponentially faster, and the audience isn’t just the media, but anyone with access to social media.
Responding to Customers on Online Review Sites
If it hasn’t already happened to your business, it surely will at some point: an unhappy customer will post a negative review, and your prospective customers will read it.
The good news is that those same prospects will think better of you if you leave a response to that review. In fact, nearly half of those surveyed by the reputation management software company ReviewTrackers (2021) said they were more likely to visit businesses that responded to bad reviews.
In other words, there’s plenty of upside, and virtually no downside, to responding to online reviews. This includes not only negative reviews but also positive ones. Prospects are more likely to read reviews with a company response. That means if you respond to a positive review, it serves to reinforce that review and draw more attention to it.
Your responses are an opportunity to make amends with unsatisfied customers, thank happy customers—and build trust with prospects.
No matter what kind of review you’ve received, there are several no-nos to always keep in mind:
Finally, try to respond to reviews within twenty-four hours. New reviews are generally what review site visitors see first, so you want them to see your response as well.
Responding quickly also makes it more likely the reviewer will see your response—which can help reinforce a positive customer experience or defuse a negative one.
SIDEBAR: DON’T LET YOUR REPUTATION MANAGEMENT AGENCY RUIN YOUR REPUTATION
We live our lives online today. Hence, how we appear in a Google search is more important than a mention in a newspaper article. That’s why PR today must take a broader approach to building and maintaining reputation—one encompassing all the ways audiences gain or lose trust in brands.
Traditional PR practitioners, unfortunately, were slow to adapt to the online world, creating an opportunity for digital marketers to hang up shingles proclaiming their expertise in “online reputation management,” or ORM. An entirely new cottage industry emerged, beginning with the launch of companies like ReputationDefender in 2006.
While traditional PR practitioners still focused on press releases and media outreach, ORM began operating behind the scenes to improve Google search results for their clients. This included activities to “push down” or even remove negative search results—such as bad online reviews and news stories.
The Risks of Black-Hat ORM
While some ORM practitioners have high ethical standards (ReputationDefender, now owned by NortonLifeLock, is one of them), many others do not. Similar to black-hat SEO firms, these firms offer a quick fix rather than getting to the root of a reputation problem. They work in a manner inconsistent with PRSA’s Code of Ethics—and are therefore risky for their clients’ reputations.
Some of the questionable practices of ORM firms include the following:
The Ethical Alternative
As ethical PR firms get up to speed on ORM, many are bringing a different mindset to online reputation—one that takes the longer view.
The right way to improve a reputation includes the following:
Choosing the Right Agency Partner
Taking a more strategic (and ethical) view of ORM doesn’t mean you can’t address issues quickly.
At Idea Grove, we had a client—a global midmarket company with a long-standing positive reputation—that had been acquired two years earlier. Rapid changes in leadership, organizational structure, and product strategy led to dozens of negative Glassdoor reviews—a turnoff to prospective employees and
Even with swift changes to improve employee morale and an active internal NPS program, it can take months to improve a poor Glassdoor rating. The client wanted the public to know about its positive internal changes sooner than that.
So we recommended that they set up authentic profiles, with authentic reviews, on alternative employer review sites. These sites are not as well known as Glassdoor, but by establishing a presence on them, the client could draw those reviews to the first page of its branded search results to enhance its reputation.
Reputation management will continue to change. When selecting an agency to help navigate this landscape, choose one that adheres to ethical standards of conduct, such as PRSA’s Code of Ethics. It’s the right thing to do and will achieve more lasting results over time.
Responding to Negative Comments on Social Media
While a twenty-four-hour response time works for online review sites, the rules are different on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Your response time must be even faster.
Research by Sprout Social shows that even though 63 percent of social media complaints receive replies within twenty-four hours, most consumers are not happy with that response time. Nearly 40 percent expect a response within an hour of posting their complaint (“Social Media Trends for 2022 & Beyond”).
If you think about it, it makes sense. Many consumers turn to Facebook or Twitter to complain only after going through the brand’s usual channels and having a frustrating experience.
By the time they vent on social media, they have run out of patience. Have empathy for them.
To catch and respond to social media complaints quickly, make sure to use a tool for real-time social listening and brand monitoring. (Sprout Social, an Idea Grove partner, is a good one.) This will allow you to track mentions of your brand, executives, and competitors as they happen—as well as red flags like spikes in activity and negative sentiment.
Winning with Urgency, Humility, and Tact
Particularly for popular and high-profile brands, reputation management is hard work. But it’s worth it.
The surest way to survive and succeed in a post-truth world of crises, cancellations, and conspiracies is with trust. Choose a set of values and stick to them. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Remember, people are believing some “weird shit” these days, so show urgency, humility, and tact when communicating with your customers—because your brand wouldn’t exist without them.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
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