OPINION17 January 2014

Taming the brand vandals


Can active engagement with critics help brands avoid reputational damage? Steve Earl, European MD of communications agency Zeno Group, weighs the risks.

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“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” So goes the age-old saying. But can such pragmatism really be applied to the legions of caustic critics and saboteurs that can lurk on the internet, eager to launch attacks on brands without warning?

Brands could be forgiven for waving away such risks as extremes or relatively isolated cases that rarely break out in crisis form. But their faith may be misplaced or at worst blind, given the alarming frequency with which brand vandalism seems to be carried out nowadays, and the common mitigation of brands caught on the hop – “We simply weren’t sufficiently prepared”.

Just like information security experts that aim to second-guess or track the habits of hackers intimately in order to understand their methods, can brands actually build better defences against unwarranted attacks by engaging with the enemy? The answer in many cases is yes – but with extreme caution, and with a full, broad-minded appreciation of what they might be getting themselves into.

Where vandals lurk
Detractors need to be monitored, and the digitisation of media makes that easier to do – at least, in theory it does. But the most dangerous critics are unlikely to show their hands in advance, so visibility is merely an ingredient of an early warning system, not the finished product. Given that the transparent and two-way nature of social media means engagement has become the only realistic option, the best way for many brands to look into their detractors’ eyes and try to change their minds is to seek to answer criticism head-on, and ultimately turn critics into advocates. Which calls for both brains and bravery.

It’s easier said than done of course, but a clear approach to nurturing and inspiring advocacy amongst the people who actually like a brand and its sector, or are at least willing to hear it out, should be at the heart of any approach to smoke out would-be saboteurs. The same applies, though with differing activation, to responding to customer complaints or comments in order to build greater loyalty and faith for the future.

Such efforts largely manifest themselves as full and frank conversations through social media that draw in content and demonstrate good behaviour. In doing so, the responsibility falls to brands to do what any willing partner in a conversation must do in order to derive value from the exchange – listen.

Ears and eyes open
Again like any successful conversation, understanding comes not just from wading in once things have already become heated, but by listening from the beginning as issues develop. It’s an approach that’s unlikely to flush out the most hardcore and opposed of objectors, but it at least gives brands the ability to engage the ‘floating voters’, or those who believe the brand is doing wrong, but are open to hearing what the brand has to say before taking more drastic action to vent their fury.

“Detractors need to be monitored, and the digitisation of media makes that easier to do. But the most dangerous critics are unlikely to show their hands in advance”

In short, reasonable people – at least, those who can be reasoned with – can help to drive weight of opinion in a brand’s favour and can be diffused before they reach too many of their own conclusions or are swayed, perhaps unfairly, by the actions of deliberate saboteurs who are unwilling to listen or have an axe to grind.

This is uncomfortable territory for a lot of organisations, but the more progressive ones are venturing into these waters as a way of maintaining transparency and of engaging in robust discussions that have the clear potential to enhance their reputation longer-term.

It can also enable them to get things out in the open in ways that, albeit with some risk attached, can at least be commanded. If the risks can be managed, the gains may well outstrip them if the brand is seen as forward-thinking in engaging its critics – a shrewd move if the issue was likely to find its way into the public domain anyway.

The wild ones
The plain and simple truth, though, is that the most vocal critics are the toughest to contain or to engage. People utterly opposed to the brand’s activities are unlikely to ever be ‘converted’ to wanting to hear its point of view, regardless of how fair or balanced that perspective is. Their views need to be confronted because attempting to sidestep them runs the very real risk of being perceived as such – probably to the chagrin of the brand and the inflammation of negativity.

These are the opponents who can’t be silenced and so can’t be tamed. In the past that would perhaps have been a bigger problem for brand owners than it is now though. Yes, the network effect of social media means negativity, or an outright virtual smack in the face, can spread around the world in seconds. But stop for a moment to think about the democratic nature of the internet, and of social media in particular – it can call into question whether or not an effort to ‘vandalise’ reputation is legitimate, and it enables the people with mixed or supportive views to become involved in the conversation.

That may make determined vandals even more barbed, and even more prone to striking hard before a response can be formulated. But the sheer visibility and ‘fair game’ of the internet should, at least, give brands some comfort. There may be many dark corners on the internet in which brand vandals can hide, but they have to come out into the open in order to lob grenades.

Steve Earl is European managing director of Zeno Group, and author – with Stephen Waddington – of the book #Brand Vandals