Silicon Valley is still the World’s Innovation Centre, acting as a global nucleus of multi-billion-dollar tech brands like Apple, Google, Netflix, Airbnb, and Oracle. While these are all successful businesses through their products and services, they have all – for the most part – also had great success in maintaining their reputations.
When considering this, I had a bit of a light bulb moment – quite literally. I recently read that the longest lasting light bulb in the world is 121-years-old, is also in California and has burned for more than one million hours, and it got me thinking about how this bulb has lasted this long and what it can teach us about maintaining company reputations.
The secret to this ever-shining bulb is constant maintenance, quality materials, careful handling, and infrequently being turned off and on – and these principles all apply in a metaphorical way to reputation management too. Don’t believe me? Here’s my four components to keeping your reputation – and brand – alive and burning.
1. Drive it forwards
Like a 121-year-old light– a good brand needs constant maintenance. You might have the market share or the highest share of voice now, but if you don’t work hard to stay at the top, competitors and new companies will catch up and overtake. People are drawn to brands that continue to move with the market and trends around them, and those that adapt and put themselves out there to try new things.
Use your communications to stay at the forefront – you can’t be complacent and assume you’ll maintain popularity without any hard work. You could model this on a company like Netflix, which had its humble beginnings in the late 90s as a mail-order video-rental service and is now one of the biggest film and TV streaming services around. While the business itself is successful, people also know it as a brand that constantly brings out new content, keeps up with trends, and moves with the world around it. However, what’s also important about Netflix is that it plays to its strengths – and it’s critical your organisation knows its strengths too.
2. Build on strengths, but handle with care
As your organisation grows, you’ll find that you become stronger in some areas that others. This can be handy for winning new business, but it can also cause problems if there’s misalignment between what people know you for and what you want to be known for.
If your company is still growing, using communications and careful messaging to promote the different areas of the business can help stop you being pigeon-holed into one speciality. However, if your company has a heritage in a particular service – don’t dump it entirely. You don’t have to be defined by it, but if it’s what made the business successful in the first place, use it to your advantage. When innovating, consider how your communications can help give legacy products or services a makeover or new light and take them to the next level – just be careful of getting distracted by the ‘shiny new thing’ when planning your strategy.
3. Avoid ‘shiny new thing’ temptation
‘Shiny new thing’ syndrome is the idea of moving on from one brand new idea to another – and it’s pretty common. For instance, you might switch off an approach to your social media strategy that’s worked well so far and turn on a brand-new approach that’s untested but seems promising and new because everyone else is doing it – it’s the ‘shiny new thing’.
But what’s the result? You get a basic understanding of different approaches and strategies to your communications, but you won’t have an in-depth understanding of any – which you would have if you’d stuck out the original approach and refined it. You need to give your planned approach a chance – see it out, take time to analyse and improve on the results. An element of experimentation is ok, but it’s best to keep refining approaches so you can learn rather than guess.
4. Your power source
While all these areas are important to consider in innovation, your organisation also can’t forget about the people who are making the innovation happen – your quality materials, your energy and your customers. They can have a bigger influence your company reputation than you may expect. Consider a company like Uber, which has had its innovative and ‘cool’ reputation tarnished in the past couple of years by sexual harassment cases. It’s still a dominant company, but a huge number of consumers chose to boycott the brand in the wake of those cases.
You need to work with your HR team to nurture the people – your fuel and energy power – who are driving your business forward, listen to their concerns, and act on them. It’s not just about keeping a consistent and exciting external brand in place, but also about using your communications to create and maintain the best possible internal brand, because that’s what is reflected externally.
While not every company can be as big as the Silicon Valley giants, maintaining your company’s reputation, demonstrating how your company is innovating, and looking after your team will enhance your longevity and give your organisation the best chance of survival – both in a business and reputation sense.
Shine bright, don’t dim the light.
Back in the early 90s, I watched a film called The Power of One with Morgan Freeman and a very young Daniel Craig playing the villain. It was essentially the story of a young boy becoming the symbol of change and hope – as far as I recall, it was a good watch but the title stayed with me.
I was reminded of the power of one recently as we watched the Fastly crisis unfold. Dozens of websites were down including Amazon, The Guardian, Reddit and even the UK government website. What was even more shocking was when it was reported that this outage was caused by one single Fastly customer. At first, I thought it was bizarre for such a big issue to be caused by one person, but actually it’s not. Single people impact and change the world every day, whether they know it or not. And actually, it’s the power of the individual that can make or break companies, especially when it comes to reputation.
One person, one move, one potential crisis
I was told a great anecdote recently about frozen chickens when discussing reputation with reputation lawyer Magnus Boyd for our new book, Reputation in the Round (coming soon – keep an eye out!). Magnus said: “Imagine that you have a young member of staff in a supermarket who decides to have a bit of a laugh. This person kicks a frozen chicken around like a football and someone records it, putting it on social media. We’d all expect a bit of a crisis from this, and perhaps the stock price of the supermarket will take a hit as people see the video. What people don’t think about is that pensions are investing in companies like this, and suddenly your retirement plans are in the hands of an 18 year-old playing around with a frozen chicken. That power has only really come about in the last decade but drives home the importance of involving everyone in discussions about company reputation, and making sure that they permeate through the entire organisation and everyone is aware.”
This really shines a light on the potential of the individual and highlights just how important it is to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to your reputation plans. The recent open letter to BrewDog from ex-staff complaining of a culture of fear demonstrates this clearly – the people at the top are really clear on the bold and punchy characters they wanted to be, but many in its workforce felt differently. It was the choice of more than 100 ex-employees to publish the open letter, while it was the choice of the CEO to publicly respond. Was this enough to override any reputational ramifications? It’s possibly too early to tell. But what we do know is that organisations must always think about their most valuable asset – their people.
Fast growth needn’t make your people furious
Technology companies are particularly infamous for fast growth – the pace of innovation is getting faster and faster by the day. Things change constantly, opportunities blossom and more often than not, it all seems to happen at once. The trick is to try and keep up with the tides, not swim against them.
In times like this, it may feel that the best thing to do is shout about success but it’s a perfect time to start listening more. Think back to the recent issues with Goldman Sachs – junior staff complaining of working 100 hour weeks and feeling as though they were victims of workplace abuse. We’re all guilty of working a bit too much from time to time, but when it’s this many extra hours there is clearly more growth than the people can keep up with and most likely unrealistic targets set for them too. When you grow, people have so much more on their plates and these plates don’t get bigger. Sometimes you just need more plates, otherwise there is a risk of people being overworked, underappreciated, and issues such as burnout become more likely.
Top tips for managing fast growth to prevent reputational risks
Reputation is fragile, like a spider web. It takes a lot of time to build but can be broken down quickly. Here are some of the ways that technology companies can pause and make sure that the fast growth ahead is manageable:
Much like the protagonist in The Power of One, one single person can have a huge impact – be that a young man standing as a symbol of hope to strive for a better future or a single Fastly customer causing a mass internet outage. Reputation is not only in the hands of the people at the top, it’s also the responsibility of the everyday employee – their time and effort need to be not only valued but celebrated. Each person holds an important power, it must be nurtured and cared for, especially during the stressful times of fast growth.
When my son was three, he very innocently let slip to his teachers, friends and their parents that ‘my Nanny sleeps in Daddy’s bed when Mummy is away’, sending the local parental rumour mill into overdrive.
Of course, our son forgot to mention Daddy was away with Mummy at the time – and I haven’t let him forget it since! But false rumours have more serious consequences, especially in the corporate or commercial world.
A rumourtologist can suppress inflammation of a false rumour, delay or halt the progression of any false rumour, or ease the pain generally for all those affected by a false rumour. Time is of the essence. According to a study at Warwick University, it takes two hours for a rumour to be resolved as true, normally by someone confirming it online. However, it takes more than 14 hours for a false rumour to be debunked.
In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, a false rumour or #fakenews can travel a very long way in 14 hours. Social media users are especially inclined to make extra effort to propel a rumour before any validity is resolved. And false rumours can lie dormant and then pop up again when least expected and propel again, and again. How many times do we see the same fake news reappearing? Therein lies the danger of false rumours, and the human frailty and bias towards negativity.
So how do rumours spread, how do we establish their veracity, and how do we tackle them? Let’s look at these one by one.
Heard it through the grapevine
How rumours spread has been analysed scientifically by institutions including Indiana University, which looked at 14 million messages on Twitter in 2016 during the US presidential election. Twitter bots, which accounted for 6% of the accounts analysed, spread 31% of the fake news – or ‘bad credibility items’ as the university rather diplomatically puts it. Similarly, bots act very quickly, taking a mere two to 10 seconds to latch onto news and spread it.
We all know how easily manipulated we can be by the sensational news on social networks or on media sites like the Daily Mail or the Express and this can fire up an almost explosive reaction that is hard to ignore. Online, it’s so easy to send a quick retort – so easy in fact, that any YouTube comment between three and eight words has a 72% chance of being abusive. “What a pile of (add expletives!).”
A lot of truth is said in jest
Thankfully, there are very clever scientists out there trying to help us understand this, to determine how and why false rumours spread faster and further than the truth. And what is true and what is false. These include:
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
Tackling rumour and speculation is something that a lot of organisations do very badly – because it’s not easy. After all, if you say nothing or ‘no comment’ that is often taken as an admission of guilt. Similarly, commenting on an issue can also fan the flames – and for all those who say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’, talk to Tesla’s shareholders; when Elon Musk was sued by the SEC, the communications reverberations wiped $200m off its market cap.
And it’s our job as communicators to manage reputations and minimise the impact that rumours have on a company’s image. It’s a fine balance, and we will often differentiate between ‘issues management’ – minor, occasionally challenging issues that are unlikely to reach the outside world – and full blown ‘crisis management’. If you’re facing a rumour, here’s a short test to help you evaluate where it falls:
If the answer is “yes” to points one or two, it’s a rumour to be monitored carefully. If the answer is “yes” to three, four, or five – it’s time to react.
Once you’ve worked this out, how do you cope? Here are my eight principles for being a top rumourtologist so your communications plans don’t get disjointed.
Fake rumours, especially those without a shred of reality or any truth behind them, are wearing at best and devastating at worst. It’s almost impossible to control how rumours start – but you can influence how they develop.
Similarly, you can also control how you choose to respond – you need to dig deep to find that inner or corporate resilience, but dignity, honesty and fairness will always win over lying, cheating and dishonesty.
In our communications roles, we’re all rumourtologists and we’ll continue to face issues over time. But we all need to hone our containment and handling skills … especially when they also transfer so handily to school scandals about any sexual shenanny-gans!
Wimbledon may be over and done, but while the sun is shining, tennis – followed by strawberries and cream, of course – is always on my to-do list. And it often makes me think that choosing an agency and running a pitch process can be a bit like a game of tennis. In short, sweaty and exhausting but thoroughly rewarding when it’s done right.
I joke, but it’s not easy on either party. And sometimes you’ve won or lost before you even get on the court; the wrong choice of opponent (or wrong shortlist of agencies) or playing on clay when you’re used to grass – inviting an SEO agency when you need a social media firm – can cause you no end of headaches for the rest of the contract period.
So, with that in mind, dust off the old tennis whites, re-string that racquet sitting in your cupboard and join me as we run through how to get the most from the pitching process – and avoid your boss uttering the infamous line “you cannot be serious!”
The other day I played tennis with my sister, Helen, for the first time in months, but I know that we’re about the same standard. In the same way, picking the right longlist and shortlist of agencies is important – and if you haven’t played before, get a coach. There are plenty of freelance senior PR advisors who are familiar with the agency landscape and can help you find the right agency to fit you.
This is a crucial first step; working with a small, boutique agency can be very different from working with a vast multinational, full-service agency, and there are pros and cons for each. Similarly, marketing is a vast, sprawling discipline these days, so you may not be sure whether you need a ‘traditional’ (i.e. media relations) PR agency, an SEO agency or an influencer relations agency – but when you only have the budget for one of them, the temptation is to invite all three to pitch.
This ‘mixed doubles’ approach towards selecting an agency isn’t necessarily a mistake, but it’s something you should walk into with your eyes open. Different agency types have very different styles of responding to a brief, so you should be firm in specifying how you want them to respond if you’re to avoid comparing apples with oranges and giving yourself a huge headache.
Playing against a ball machine always seems like a bit of a novelty, but after a while you’ll find yourself craving a human opponent, however much they may grunt (sorry Helen, but it’s true). In the same way, during the first stage of agency selection, do a lot of it in person or over video calls.
Many of our contemporaries have made less flattering comparisons for the initial stages of the pitch process, saying that you wouldn’t marry someone after just two dates, and without having met them – and this is totally fair. You’ll be working in close proximity with this agency for (hopefully) a number of months and years, so you need to understand that their vision and energy matches yours, that they understand your company and have good experience in the space – and that you think you could work well together. Doing this face-to-face is much easier and more effective than doing it over email.
The most important thing in securing the right agency partner for you, whether it’s in a phone call or during a face-to-face briefing session, is being clear about what you want to get from the relationship. Imagine the final smash that wins the match – or even a post-game review where you’re assessing the project in a year’s time. What was successful about the campaign? What did the agency achieve? What made your boss crack open the bubbly in celebration? Play this back within the brief and you’ll be onto a winner.
However, the other important component is that the resources you provide (i.e. the budget) must match your requirements. I think most people would confess to having champagne taste and a beer budget – but this rarely works professionally! If communications and marketing are vital to your organisation, then the leadership team must provide realistic resources for this – or compromise. You wouldn’t expect Rafael Nadal to come onto court with a second-hand racquet, trainers falling apart, having forgotten to train for the last fortnight – he needs the best equipment and training to stay number one.
There you have it – a few more tips on how to get the most from your agency selection process. It’s something we’ve written on quite a lot, so if you want further guidance, please don’t hesitate to contact me, or to read some of our previous pieces. It can be a tough process, but by following these steps, you can court the right agency and ace your marketing plan!
By the time you’re reading this, all UK organisations that employ 250 people or more have (or should have) published their gender pay gap. More than 10,000 large firms have provided details of their gender pay gap and so far, the results have shown that three-quarters of them pay men more than women. Yet despite the legal requirement to submit these figures, there is no obligation for organisations to take action and reduce their gender pay gap.
However, if they fail to address it, their brand and reputation may be affected.
It’s all in the narrative
Instead of producing results as just part of a compliance exercise, organisations may choose to seize the opportunity to tackle their gender pay gap and set concrete targets for closing the gap. Above and beyond the obvious reason for doing this – it’s the right thing to do – organisations should consider the impact on their brand if they don’t correct their failings. A weak brand can make retaining and attracting talent a difficult task, resulting in high levels of staff turnover, increased marketing and communications costs and an unproductive workforce.
However, once you’ve been walking the walk and not just talking the talk, then you should make sure that people know about the ‘new you’. So, with that in mind, how can companies start building (or re-building) their employer brand and, of course, how can marketing and PR help?
Shout about it
Many organisations overcoming the gender pay gap will have put coaching programmes in place to ensure female staff are successful in all areas of the business. However, a crucial step is not only to be a coach, but also an advocate for female representation across the company. For example, when profiling female staff in external press, don’t just allow male staff to talk about how the company has overcome the gender pay gap – put forward female staff and those from diverse backgrounds to speak with the media. For instance, Stylist magazine has a section called ‘A day in the life’, where the team profiles employees in various job roles, not just senior management. This variety will not only show diversity in your organisations, but it frequently leads to the unearthing of interesting and unusual stories. Your organisation may also be in the fortunate situation where the gender pay gap has never been an issue – and if that’s the case, encourage your female advocates to shout about this in the press too! Show off your USPs and the fact you’re ahead of the legislation.
Similarly, spend some time doing media training and preparing employees to speak with media – and use a cross-section of staff. For example, put forward someone from tech support or business development to give potential employees a different perspective of your organisation. This also gives employees from different levels a chance to represent the company and express their opinions, which will be seen as a positive aspect of working at the company by potential recruits.
Consistency is key
If you want to attract top talent to your company, it’s key to be consistent in your messaging. Any potential candidates will likely take a look at your social media channels to gauge what your company’s culture is like and will judge you based on the messages that you share. Include any company updates such as company away days, new hires and events on your page as well as interesting and engaging blog posts, videos and pictures that are relevant to your company or industry. Authenticity is important and can act as a big differentiator when employers claim they have an excellent company culture.
Twitter is an important social channel to focus on when building your employer brand. We recommend giving your employees Twitter guides, detailing how they should represent the brand online, but with room to allow for personalities to shine through.
Keep an eye out
Do you co-manage Glassdoor with HR? If not, you should. Platforms like Glassdoor give you the opportunity to manage company profiles, so you can include messages that align with other marketing activity. It can also influence strategy and give you an idea of how to strengthen the brand and address or counter weaknesses that arise from public feedback. Through PR and HR co-managing the company Glassdoor profile, you can ensure there are no discrepancies between your messaging and employee reviews – and if there are, address the reviewers accordingly. This shows that you take feedback seriously and aim to resolve any issues that your employees face while working at your organisation.
Whether the impact of the gender pay gap affects your business or not, building a consistent and transparent employer brand is essential in the fight for talent – as a nation built on the services industry, most challenges that brands face eventually come down to people. Improving your employer branding will increase employee engagement by showing employees that they work at a great company, but it will also help retain and recruit talent and ensure that there is consistency in messages, values and behaviour. Ultimately, this can only lead to company success!
Virtual reality is one of the most talked about new technologies at the moment, and another popular news topic of late has been the devastation in countries such as Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. These might seem like two very different topics to bring up in one sentence, but the combination did come up recently when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg decided to take viewers on an Oculus VR journey through the damage in Puerto Rico to show what Oculus VR can do.
While the intention was to drive empathy with the victims among Facebook’s audience as Zuckerberg discussed what his company is doing to help the island, the approach missed the mark. The cartoon VR version of Mark Zuckerberg juxtaposed against the backdrop of the disaster in Puerto Rico left many wondering who thought that the stream would be a good idea.
Zuckerberg responded to the negativity, saying:
“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realise this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
So why wasn’t it clear? Surely someone in the Facebook team raised the possibility this might happen, given it’s so obvious to an outsider?
This VR blunder isn’t the only brand mistake of late, with Dove also in the spotlight after being accused of racism and having to pull one of its latest advertisements. The Facebook ad in question showed a black woman removing a brown T-shirt, changing her to a white woman in a white T-shirt underneath. The white woman then removed her white T-shirt to reveal an Asian woman.
The ad is only three-seconds long, but created an outcry over the interpreted message that Dove’s soap turns black skin white, despite Dove’s intention of celebrating diversity and showing that the body wash is suitable for every kind of woman.
Again – to us outsiders, it seems like an obvious error, but as you’ll also know from working in marketing or PR, certain factors can cloud our judgement or push things over the line that not everyone agrees on. Whether it’s egos, fussy clients, money or another circumstance causing these issues, there are steps you can take to help prevent falling into Zuckerberg or Dove’s shoes.
No team can be perfect planners all of the time – even at tech giants like Facebook, but considering this checklist during your marketing or PR campaign planning can help you be braced for anything. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all – and you’ll make your job easier by expecting the worst.
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
As a mother of three teens – all of whom are sadly too old for Harry Potter now – I I have learned to have very low expectations of any Christmas gifts. This way, I can never be disappointed.
It’s a realisation that I think every parent experiences: you are likely to be the buyer, wrapper and giver, for everyone and on behalf of everyone, even your own presents, as well as chief cook and washer upper!
At Christmas, I often get the cheap perfume or slippers, but every now and then, I am bowled over by something so very thoughtful and personal. The gift doesn’t need to be expensive, in fact I’d rather it wasn’t. It’s the wine bottle stopper (good intentions but rarely required!), the Gryffindor socks, the left-handed potato peeler, the pretty picture frame with my daughter’s photo already in it – these are the things that melt your heart because you know someone has thought about it and made an extra effort to make you feel special.
As CEO of Firefly Communications, taking a personal approach is always at the front of my mind. A scatter-gun or blanket approach to PR rarely works, unless you’re lucky enough to be one of the few mega-brands that can still hold a press conference and get every reporter to cover it. After all, PR is changing quickly. ‘Broadcast’ campaigns rarely work and it’s vital to be personalised to cut through the noise. Even the media, and especially bloggers and vloggers, want something tailored to them and their readers or followers.
So how can a PR team personalise its multichannel PR and communications campaigns so that it doesn’t feel like a gift that someone picked up at a service station on the way to see you?
The challenge of 1:1 marketing
A while ago, it was very fashionable to talk about one-to-one marketing. However, unless you deal in very high value, high margin goods, it’s rarely practical.
However, good personalisation is simultaneously time-intensive, difficult and tremendously beneficial. According to research, 52% of online marketers hold personalisation as a central theme in their strategy. Furthermore, 71% claim that it has an impact on ROI.
So, how do marketers accurately personalise communications? Many content marketing brands are keen to discuss personas, but without in-depth and intelligent research, these can simply represent stereotypes. These stereotypes are exactly the poor frameworks which lead people to believe that I enjoy cheap perfume and slippers. And as David Ogilvy famously said ‘the buyer is not a moron, she’s your wife!’ so if you do use personas, please take care.
However, there are several other ways that you can gather the data necessary for personalised marketing. Few of them are ‘quick fixes’, but as most experienced marketers know, there are no silver bullets in our industry.
1. Know your customer: This is where it helps to have a solid relationship with the sales and account management teams. If you have the chance to attend a sales meeting, customer summit or check-in, you can garner vital information about customer preferences, why people buy from your brand and so on.
After all, there’s no point marketing your brand as Lamborghini if your prospects are Volvo buyers. Failing that, interrogate the sales team on what makes customers tick. What do they read? What do they watch? What events to do they go to?
2. Big data or not-so-big data: If you’ve been doing any kind of campaign activity so far, you will already have some information on your prospects. Mailchimp, for example, gives subscribers a star rating and allows you to view individual activity on each subscriber, including opens, click throughs etc. This information represents a goldmine of activity allowing you to tailor communications – or to reserve your mailings for highly engaged prospects!
This data does take time to gather and you must expect to make a few mistakes, like buying chocolate for your dairy-intolerant daughter-in-law. It’s important to remember that the plural of anecdote is not data, and to gather enough information to make a reliable and valid decision.
3. Retain your staff: This may seem left-field, but when you are dealing with analytics and marketing to a very specific audience, it takes time to build the necessary familiarity with your brand, content, style and what works. Furthermore, when marketers must also understand their brand’s audience and their content consumption preferences in turn, it’s vital to retain staff who understand this, rather than replacing and re-educating, which can set brands back by months.
4. Understand the purchasing cycle – if there is one: Not all companies and organisations work to a set purchasing cycle, but many more do. We find that there are a lot of technology companies whose financial years run by calendar years or the traditional April – March financial year.
This means they are generally planning their new budgets in November or February to be signed off the following month before the new year begins. An ill-timed approach can result in a ‘near-miss’ and a long wait before the year starts again! This means that a good CRM, which allows you to note when staff within organisations are likely to buy or be thinking about buying, is a crucial investment.
So, as you start to deck the halls with boughs of holly and pick up your festive gifts, spare a thought for all your prospects who are also hoping for a personalised communication this Christmas.
After all, they may really want a nice pair of socks (or a Harry Potter DVD) and when it comes to marketing and PR, a little personalisation and thought goes a long way.
In the final video of the #Firefly25 interview series, Claire Walker reflects on Firefly throughout the ages and looks to the future.
Claire explains how the agency has changed radically over 25 years but how the change has been less about what Firefly does and more about the type of clients it works for and how it goes about it…
What will the future bring? In this video, Firefly founder and CEO Claire Walker gives a summary of what current PR trends are emerging and the overall direction of the PR industry.
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