We’ve all seen reputational disasters play out before. Crisis comms kick in, and leadership is forced to make tough decisions about the future. But, what about when a company reputation isn’t totally obliterated, but it takes a knock?
Tackling a PR setback
England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) has a partnership with British Airways. British Airways has leveraged this partnership in its comms activity, with various marketing actions including sharing pictures of the England men’s rugby team flying first class to their matches. So, when the sporting world found out that the RFU and British Airways declined to fly the England women’s rugby team first class to their World Cup matches late last year, both organisations experienced a PR issue.
Ever since this information became public, debate has ensued about whether the two organisations made the right or wrong decision. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, we can all agree that this situation is about reputational impact.
Character vs capability reputation
Company reputation is split between character reputation and capability reputation. Capability reputation is the organisation’s ability to deliver a product or a service, in this case, the RFU and British Airways’ capability to transport the team from A to B.
Capability reputation is always balanced with character reputation, which is all about how a product or service is being delivered. In this example, both organisations were perceived as capable of getting England’s women and men alike to the pitches. But, in a context in which sexism in sport remains prevalent, the organisations’ decision to offer superior treatment to the men’s team was always going to result in a character reputation setback.
Building a consistently winning character reputation strategy
Shaping a company reputation is a lot like playing a game of rugby. Organisations hype themselves up, formulate a winning strategy, and then start to make moves. But it’s important that leaders don’t let their gameplan slip.
Consistency is Queen, as proved by the Red Roses breaking the world record for most consecutive wins in International Rugby Union. Similarly, a company reputation is formed over years, and every action counts. Above all, leaders must avoid reputational blunders by building out a long-term strategy that avoids contradiction and always remains consistent.
What do a maple syrup company, world-renowned author JK Rowling, and Ellen DeGeneres all have in common? They have all been cancelled and are still reeling from the effects. Cancel culture, which can be defined as the blacklisting and ostracisation of a company, celebrity, or public figure, is one of the biggest issues facing PR today. Companies have fought tirelessly to grow their reputations, and now thanks to cancel culture, there is even more need to build a robust reputation.
Increasingly, we are seeing examples of when a strong reputation with loyal customers (or fanbases) make brands somewhat ‘cancel-proof’. In fact, time and time again, organisations that were once trending on Twitter for their often controversial ‘cancellation’, have risen from the ashes due to their leaders’ strong and resilient reputation.
Crisis management has always been a significant part of public relations, but no one could have predicted the scale and reach that cancel culture might have. So, should communications professionals be scared of the looming threat of cancel culture? Or could a strong reputation mean a resilience can be built against these mass boycotts?
Great reputations and charismatic leaders
Despite the power of ‘cancellation’, reputation has been the saving grace of some companies and public figures, who may have otherwise succumbed to the snubbing. A notable example of this is YouTube titan Jeffree Star, who owns makeup company Jeffree Star Cosmetics. Despite exhibiting behaviour that could risk cancellation, Star and his cosmetics empire have remained resilient to this threat, due to his strong online presence and reputation, as well as his loyal and established fanbase.
In the tech world, one may draw parallels with Elon Musk. Musk’s ability to survive controversy after controversy has been attributed to the fact that he is a charismatic leader, although that’s not to say there hasn’t been some reputational damage to Tesla because of Musk’s behaviour.
Damage that cancellation can do
The reputational damage that cancel culture can do is not to be understated. A certain beverage company will remember 2017 as the year they lost a predicted $5 million dollars in the aftermath of cancel culture. When Pepsi hired the world’s highest paid supermodel Kendall Jenner to star in their protest
As much as some companies may hope and pray, cancel culture is not going anywhere. The rise of social media’s influence on society (71% of Tik Tok users believe it’s where the biggest trends start) means that brand need to learn to adapt and survive against cancel culture, and the addition of a charismatic leader is a major component to reputational resilience. The decisions that a company makes when it concerns a company’s reputation must be thoroughly thought through. Ultimately, it is not cancel culture itself that organisations (with or without a face) should fear, but the status of your reputation and whether it can make your company resilient.
The last couple of years have brought what has felt like near non-stop economic turbulence. Brexit, Covid-19, the outbreak of war in Ukraine and now the spiralling cost of living and energy prices have all created shockwaves to global economies. At a time where the pinch is being felt by businesses and consumers alike, communications – both internal and external – must be approached delicately.
Communicating how a product or service can genuinely help customers during this period – whether it’s through cutting back IT costs, speeding up internal processes, reskilling talent quickly, and so on – is important, yes. But it is also important to recognise that this may not be the time to apply huge amounts of pressure to existing and prospective customers. Consumers and businesses alike are being cautious with their spending. There are nerves, fear even, about what’s to come. An aggressive sales and communication strategy might seem the way to go, but it’s certainly not the most empathetic.
At times like this, the art of communication becomes more nuanced than ever. It’s vital to show your customers that you see them, that you understand the challenges they’re facing as well as their fears and reservations. It’s important you don’t adopt a blanket approach but instead understand how the economic downturn might be affecting each of your key target industries differently, and what the different needs are. Businesses can show this understanding and expertise through website content like blogs and whitepapers, email marketing, and social media that adds value – sharing relevant insights and advice. Thought leadership pieces from a company’s experts and executives is another great way of communicating value and advice. A renewed focus on customer advocacy could also earn you more loyalty as it allows existing or potential customers to see the value of your product or service through the eyes and experiences of others.
Of course, communicating with customers or external stakeholders is only one side of the coin. Internal communications during an economic downturn are also crucial. Staff must be made to feel safe and valued in their roles. And, if redundancies do need to happen, your internal communication plan needs to ensure that transparency, empathy and consistency are incorporated. The manner in which layoffs are carried out can truly make or break a company’s reputation, as demonstrated by SnapChat’s CEO saying layoffs were a way to weed out the company’s ‘haters’.
Having communications partners by your side to share their expertise and help guide you and your business through these coming months – or even years – is hugely valuable. Brands and reputations don’t stop in an economic downturn. In fact, these are the very moments in time when they are moulded.
As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary, ‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’, today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.
In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.
The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?
As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.
While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.
While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.
As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.
In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.
For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!
The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:
The past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?
Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.
There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:
Take time to train
Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.
Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Staying calm in a crisis
Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.
If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.
Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.
Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!
Crystal clear communications
The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.
The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.
Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.
Countless people have said it, but this year really was anything but predictable. Despite the sudden change, the year wasn’t all doom and gloom. Mental health was discussed more, social justice movements really accelerated, carbon emissions dropped at the height of lockdown, Animal Crossing had its time in the limelight, and most of us learnt how to make bread and other baked goods.
With 2020 almost behind us, we’ve been having some great discussions here at Firefly about what we think the year ahead holds, so here are six of the main trends we’ve come up with that we think will have a huge impact on the world of comms in 2021.
Stronger communication of social and political movements
This year, we have seen social justice efforts dialled up drastically. Hugely important topics such as climate change, animal rights, and wellbeing were brought to the awareness of the masses more so than ever before this year. However, the most powerful of which was undoubtedly the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, where many stood in solidarity to fight against racial oppression and reflected on the prejudices within their own societies. The impactful global movement not only brought these issues to the front of everyone’s minds, but it also prompted action from a number of organisations and effective communication became key.
As we approach 2021, it is likely that topics much like these will continue to surface, causing a shift in both corporate and consumer behaviour. Responding in the wrong way, or not responding at all, can have a negative knock-on effect on the reputation of individuals and/or companies, so being prepared for communicating on issues will be a key consideration as we enter the new year.
Move over media relations
In the coming year, the face of PR will change, even more so than it has already. Companies, and particularly in-house PR teams, are focusing less and less on traditional media coverage. Of course, the media remains an important audience to communicate to, but comms specialists must start to look at the reputation all around them, not just in the media. Finding the right means of communication will become crucial to helping build or improve the reputation of organisations or individuals. With tactics such as SEO, employer branding, and other reputation-building tactics becoming more and more impactful, it’s clear that media relations alone simply won’t cut it anymore. As an industry, we must start to adapt, develop, and innovate in 2021, pushing communication to its full potential.
Tim believes that “The best campaigns nowadays hit different audiences, in different ways, and at different times, and the truth is that media relations on its own doesn’t usually deliver that as effectively as a wider comms campaign.”
Cancel culture continues on
Prior to this year, we knew cancel culture was a thing, but with the power of social media and the increase of social justice movements, both the extent and frequency has increased a fair bit. Most infamously this year was the fall of the once beloved writer, J.K. Rowling who voiced opinions that many deemed as anti-transgender. Despite numerous attempts to repair her reputation by demonstrating support and clarification on her opinions, J.K.’s cancel saga continues.
So far, the comms industry has had some trouble with understanding and getting to grips with cancel culture. And this is only expected to get harder in the coming year. Our words, especially on social media, can make a huge impact. Now that those involved in cancel culture know that it works, it’s likely that this will only increase just how much they partake in the public shaming of brands. Going forward, we must start to take cancel culture seriously.
For anyone who’s still new to cancel culture or wants to learn a bit more, we wrote a blog about it recently. You can read it here.
The battle against misinformation continues
We wrote a blog last year about deepfakes being a big threat to the media, and the efforts of those involved in spreading misinformation have really ramped up since. The pandemic has caused a huge amount of misinformation to be spread as many questioned the virus, the causes and eventually the vaccine. In retaliation, the World Health Organisation coined the phrase “infodemic” to explain this plethora of information and its rapid spread. Social media giants even began to crack down on misinformation by flagging posts that may have inaccuracies or be deceptive – hopefully, this will be just the start of the likes of Facebook and Twitter preventing the spread of fake news.
In the next year, it’s likely we will begin to see some real innovation in this area and a shift in behaviour, but it won’t be easy. Comms will have a tricky year ahead trying to deliver accurate, reliable, and credible information, and if the culture of misinformation continues to grow and become more mainstream, this will cause even more challenges!
Empathy, care, and continued commitment
After being subject to nationwide and local lockdowns, where many of us were unable to see our closest friends and families, we all needed a little boost. Everyone has already begun to pay close attention to their own mental wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. Even the government has begun to comment on this too. With so much focus on this, it is almost definitely something that will impact the year ahead. For comms professionals, communicating with care is key and care should be top of the agenda for leaders too.
Christian thinks that “The Covid-19 vaccine will take a long time to change the world stage, so people will be working remotely for some time yet. This means that leaders must continue being inspiring, motivating their staff, and making difficult decisions for some time yet. It’s time to dig deep and communicate clearly, powerfully and responsibly.”
Planning for uncertain times
As we know, this year hasn’t been predictable at all, and actually, it’s uncertain just how much we can know about the next year. Despite the uncertainty, we can plan for the year ahead by ensuring there is fluidity interwoven into our plans. Pre-Covid, it was easy enough for us to plan around big events, or key moments in the calendar for the following year. Due to the vaccine being distributed, we can almost start planning in this way again, but we must ensure we have a back-up plan if these milestone moments in the year are postponed or cancelled.
According to Charlotte, “A full, detailed yearly plan has not been ‘a thing’ for a while, things change far too fast to look that far ahead. There is still uncertainty around the corner, so comms planning must be fluid and we must give ourselves room to flex, to either face new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.”
There are, of course, countless other trends that are likely to make an impact in the year ahead, but these are the six we really think you, as a comms professional, would benefit from keeping a close eye on. This year has been an interesting one to say the least, but we’ve all learnt a lot, and despite the uncertainty, some great things have happened. From us at Firefly, we hope you have a wonderful festive break, enjoy time with loved ones, and recharge those batteries for a brilliant new year ahead. And of course, hopefully the newfound baking skills many of us picked up in lockdown can come in handy for whipping up some festive treats while playing Michael Bublé on repeat!
We all went on a summer holiday… or maybe not if you happened to book your flight with BA.
Strikes and IT outages wreaked havoc this summer, with numerous cancellations and delays (in one instance, all apparently due to a plug being pulled out). Not only could this quickly turn your dream vacation into the holiday from hell, it’s also a PR person’s nightmare.
In any industry, there’s never a good time for something negative and unwanted to crop up, and certainly not during the height of summer in the travel industry. And of course, the challenge with crisis situations is that seemingly minor incidents need to be handled correctly. If not, they will also slowly chip away at that reputation you’ve worked so hard to build up and eventually crack it completely.
It’s inevitable that there will be tricky situations to navigate through, but for the comms teams, you shouldn’t need to panic, strap on a life jacket or make your way to the nearest emergency exit: you’ve got this.
All too often though, many businesses are still doing exactly that, getting their approach and reaction wrong. So, if something does arise, what should you say, how and when should you say it, or should you take a leaf from Ronan Keating’s book and say nothing at all?
Staying shtum – the no comment predicament
“No comment” is a famous phrase uttered by many a celebrity or politician, but in today’s media landscape not saying something is a comment in itself. Aston Martin has recently featured in the media over serious losses after its IPO, but most notable of all was the lack of anyone to comment. Indeed, just a day after the news broke, the Daily Telegraph followed up with publishing a whole piece analysing why the CEO didn’t say anything.
It seems that many companies still have not learnt from Facebook’s hard lesson last year during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as many media sources asked, “Where’s Zuckerberg?” With so many ways to share news and communicate with the public and customers, companies are expected to say something. Not doing so can be taken as a snub, not taking an issue seriously or caring about customers, or even an indication of guilt.
However, there can be a right time to say nothing. In any crisis, it’s important to establish the facts: who is calling you and are they who they say they are? If it’s an unhappy customer, then should you pass it on to customer services? Similarly, is this something that has been a problem in the past? If it is just someone with a personal vendetta now is the time to decline to speak. When it comes to social media trolls, do not engage!
Saying nothing can be a bold move, so just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Fanning the flames
When we were kids, we were all told: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While as grown adults we may not always quite follow this mantra, when it comes to the world of comms, there can be something to be said for it.
If you do decide to speak up, it’s important to keep your emotions in check and stick to the facts. An extreme reaction may be seen as providing grounds and proof to accusations and can make the situation a whole lot worse. Few of us have forgotten Elon Musk’s Twitter debacle over Space X’s submarine and the Thailand Caves.
Similarly, don’t make any promises or claims you can’t stick to. When TSB experienced service outages last year, it jumped the gun, explaining that the service would be down over the weekend but up and fully running again on the Monday. This was not the case until many days later. TSB’s continued customer dissatisfaction (not to mention subsequent summons by MPs) are testament to hasty promises doing more harm than good.
The biggest faux pas? Shifting the blame to another party. Here TSB also made a false move, trying to push the problems onto Sabadell. But when it comes to trying to manage your reputation, this is not going to sit well with your customers ‒ always take responsibility and hold yourself accountable.
If what you have to say is only going to make things worse, it may well be time to heed your parents’ advice.
Having your say
So how can you differentiate and make sure that you’re putting forward your view, rather than just setting a match to the situation? Here are some top tips:
In many countries, the summer is a quiet period, but this isn’t always true – and many firms have found that out the hard way! With September around the corner and a new year less than a hundred days away, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. So, buckle up and with some preparation, even a bit of turbulence can still result in a smooth landing.
Amazon, Google… so many of the big guys have suffered recently. Amazon is accused of sacking a pregnant worker, raising more questions about warehouse working conditions. Meanwhile, Google has had a succession of incidents involving pay-outs to the executive accused of sexual assault, followed by a global walkout, and more recently, reports that the firm retaliated against two of the female employees who organised the walkout.
What is concerning when reading these reports is that these major international firms still seem to believe some things can be hidden behind closed doors. But they can’t: the truth will come out and a lot is still being learnt after the #metoo movement.
It could be that there are some issues internally that are still being ironed out. But it also could be that leaders have been at the top for so long that they’ve lost touch with reality on the ground. I was recently reading about cognitive distortion which is when our mind convinces us something is true and real when it is not. Common cognitive distortions includes polarised thinking, over-generalisations, disqualifying the positive, but in the case of these tech giants, there may be some minimisation going on. For example, the thinking that these employees don’t represent the bulk of our workforce, so we don’t have a cultural problem. If that’s how they’re thinking, there is a much bigger issue at play. And ignoring the situation and hoping it’ll go away will only lead to bigger problems down the line – brushing things under the rug really does make a mountain.
You may be thinking, “But, Charlotte, these companies are still being used by millions of people, this reputational damage is a drop in the ocean for them.” Well, yes, that may be true in the short term, but how much longer can they take reputational hits like these before users are turned off? Also, having a bad reputation as an employer means that you’re less likely to attract the best people, and without the best people you fall behind in producing the best products and services. Just this month, a report by CNBC revealed that Facebook is struggling to hire following recent scandals. Multiple former recruiters revealed that candidates are turning away job offers.
Character or Capability?
An organisation’s reputation is split between capability reputation and character reputation. Capability is the organisation’s ability to deliver a product or a service, whereas its character reputation is how it does this, and how it interacts with its stakeholders. Sometimes your bad character reputation is forgiven because you’re capable when it matters, but it’s easier to forgive a bad character reputation when it’s not constantly bad.
So, how do you stop your organisation from falling into that character/capability reputation trap? This means going back to the point on cognitive distortion and addressing self-awareness. As a leader, you must:
Surround yourself with people that challenge: It’s natural for senior people to surround themselves with people like them but this creates an echo chamber. Your personality will grow from your thinking being challenged and widening your views.
Give ways for employees to be honest with you: You may think an annual employee survey or your network of managers is enough, but it isn’t. You need to give employees a way to constantly feedback, as well as means to do this anonymously because it could be about a sensitive issue. The faster you can surface issues, the faster they are addressed and could actually improve your reputation as an employer rather than damage it.
Observe others: Take inspiration from others in how they address employee crises – what does their response tell you about them as an employer? Then think how you want to be perceived and either learn from what they are doing well, or by how they’ve handled it badly.
Think bigger: There’s a whole world beyond your organisation. What could you be doing to help? And I don’t mean just for positive PR – stunts can backfire (just look at Elon Musk’s suggestion for saving the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand using a submarine!) Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was criticised for years for not using his wealth for a better purpose. Steve Jobs was regularly criticised for his apparent unwillingness to give any of his multi-billion dollar fortune to charity. Contrast that to Bill Gates’ and Richard Branson’s charitable work. Now, such huge scales may not be realistic, but there’s always something you can do for your community and earn you the benefit of the doubt when something unexpected goes wrong – even among your workforce.
The fall out of an employee crisis is longer lasting than a few bad articles. So, whilst the likes of Google and Amazon may not be feeling the pain of these reputation hits now, they would be naïve to think they won’t affect them in the long-term. Because neglecting your character reputation will eventually impact your capability reputation.
There was a time when fake news only affected politics and candidates in elections. But a recent trend has seen fake news begin to target brands.
The fact-checking website Snopes is full of fake news being busted, including a claim that Snapchat’s image feature filter “lenses” is covertly collecting a database of faces to share with law enforcement agencies. Another story about Starbucks offering free Frappuccinos to undocumented US migrants also circulated, though seemed to be politically motivated and started by a 4Chan user.
For PR professionals, this trend is of concern. Fake news has already caused havoc in the political sphere and causes reputational damage. Lies tend to travel much faster than the truth, and fake news is designed to travel quickly through the internet, meaning brands need to be switched onto the threat these lies present to the business.
To combat this, PR professionals must think about how to use listening tools and utilise community management to combat any fake news that does arise about their brand.
The role of community management and social listening
Whilst community management may suggest a single location, your community is built up of multiple locations throughout the internet: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, forums and comment sections on your blog or earned coverage.
Community management is very separate from social media marketing – it’s all about what happens beyond your social media publishing and positive engagement. It is dominated by listening to the internet and reacting when appropriate.
This act of social listening helps brands to monitor social media and other channels for mentions of the brand, competitors and products. This insight can be used to engage customers and monitor sentiment for your brand. It’s important to stress that social listening shouldn’t just be limited to Facebook and Twitter, and by casting a wider net you’ll get better insights from different platforms. The conversations on LinkedIn, for example, will be very different to those on Reddit.
There are many tools that help with social listening, however Hootsuite is a Firefly favourite and one we use for our own Twitter account, and to monitor the client’s Twitter accounts that we manage. There is a free version which is suitable for SMBs to use, but paid for options for larger companies that may have multiple feeds and accounts to manage. It can monitor your Twitter feeds, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn. Tools like TrackReddit are also good for tracking conversations about your brands in forums.
In the context of fake news, social listening tools like Hootsuite and TrackReddit can help brands to spot problems relatively quickly. With feeds to monitor your mentions and branded search terms, it’s easy to see how a brand can pick up on fake news and act swiftly to quell the story.
Squashing fake news
Squashing fake news is much like reacting to a crisis for your brand. You must react quickly, confidently and tackle the issue at hand, before it begins to cause long term problems. There are three things you need to know to tackle it effectively: what to look for, who to go to and how to react.
The speed of your reaction is one of the most important to squashing false claims made about a brand. The Starbucks team took a sensible approach – calling it out pretty much straight away – which any brand should follow in the situation. It’s difficult to take something down from the internet once it’s up, so once you’re confident, take a stance early on to call it out “this is false”, rather than trying to have articles taken down.
Brands and politicians are still waiting on Facebook and Google to properly counteract fake news with fact-checking services and verified publisher logos for news services. Fake news is not a problem that will go away overnight and with the rise of stories now targeting brands, it’s clear that community management and social listening has a huge part to play in reputation management.
There are many types of PR disasters, but by far the worst is when you push out a campaign based on an idea that really hasn’t been thought through. Pepsi was under fire this month for its advert featuring Kendall Jenner brokering peace between protestors and police using Pepsi. Although the sentiment of unity, peace and understanding was good, the resulting advert “missed the mark” as Pepsi quite rightly put it.
Pepsi’s not the first or the last company to have a bad idea. But unfortunately for companies like Pepsi, there are few places to hide once the bad idea is out there and the backlash starts to flood the internet. Kudos to Pepsi for acknowledging its mistake – and if you want more on handling a crisis, do read this piece by our CEO Claire – but I ask, how could Pepsi have avoided this whole disaster in the first place? Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes!
For me the answer is two-fold: Diversity and the power to speak up.
Our client, Julie Chakraverty, is the founder of Rungway, which is a platform that helps people give and get help on work life questions. Julie is a huge advocate of diversity and is often speaking at events that can help companies develop a more diverse workforce. A story she told at one of these events caught my attention and got me thinking quite differently. She said that when you’re explaining an idea to a friend or someone from a similar background, you don’t have to explain yourself too much because they understand your context. But if you’re explaining something in a situation without likeminded people or people of a similar demographic around, you’ll often need to explain your thinking a lot more to justify it. It’s this dialogue that is hugely beneficial as it can often raise new views and opinions that can strengthen and/or develop an idea a lot further. Or – in this case, help you see that the idea isn’t a great one.
Diversity in any industry and in any department is a great thing – and it’s on the agenda for everyone. In marketing and PR specifically, the winners will be those who push for diversity more aggressively because their workforce will be all the more powerful.
That said, the other side of the coin is having the power to speak up. Having a room full of people with diverse views and backgrounds is great, but you need to give them the power to use their voice.
In a Ted Talk by Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, I learnt about what makes people feel comfortable about speaking up. Adam talks about two motivators that compel us to speak up: having expertise, and having social support and allies. But more interestingly, we all have a range of ‘acceptable behaviours’ based on our experience. The wider the range, the more likely we speak up. This range is also not fixed, it expands and narrows based on context. Adam states that the biggest influence on that range is the individual’s power within the group. When someone has lots of power, the range widens.
And why am I telling you this? It’s because this background helps you understand how to create an environment that encourages everyone to have a voice.
In Adam’s Ted Talk he talks about ways to increase people’s power. He lists methods such as:
By even pushing just one of the behaviours above, you’re more likely to have people speak out during meetings and sessions meant to drive ideas.
For marketers and communication professionals, a bad idea can cause huge damage to a brand’s reputation, putting the future of the company at risk. Pushing for diversity and creating the right environment gives brands a better chance at not ending up in Pepsi’s red-faced position. But also, we – the public – will get better and more thought-provoking ideas, improving the overall standard of publicity, advertising and communications across the industry.
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