Getting your social approach right: protecting your brand from critics

A number of people have asked me this week about how they should prepare their brand for attacks from activist groups who criticise them in the media. I’ll leave the mechanics of crisis management to the legal and PR people who specialise at it – but here are some thoughts on simple things you can do as a brand to make sure you are as ready as you can be.

1. Don’t view advocates for another opinion or worldview as enemies. You may not like what they say, or the manner in which they say it, but, unless they are physically attacking your business, essentially they are competitors (and on occasions even potential allies) – and the reason why they are more like competitors is that they have the potential to take attention, influence and market share away from your brand. So treat them like you would any other competitor: get to know them, get to know what they believe in and the opinions they compete against you on. Draw up a watch list. Keep an eye on their social media. Understand what they stand for in the marketplace. What you can’t do is pretend they’re not there or start engaging with them, either directly or indirectly, once they have done something to get your attention. If you do that, you will always be in catch-up.

2. Draw up a strong and simple set of principles that state what you believe in and link those principles directly to your brand, values and reputation. Those principles should be directly related to the things that you affect and that affect you as a brand socially. Use the “Because … then” connection to establish why you believe what you believe rather than just making apple-pie statements. (See my last post on social responsibility for more details on this.) State those principles openly on your website – and make your principles and worldview a critical part of your induction process, so that your own people understand from the get-go what you stand for. If someone draws attention to something you don’t have a principle on, make a decision quickly about where you stand on that point as it relates to your brand and values, and state that clearly for the record. If you don’t have a position, but you understand you need one, then say so and explain why you haven’t had such a principle up until now. Undertake to establish a principle, put a timeframe round it, and go public once you’ve decided.

3. Once you have a set of principles in place, establish clear measures for how you will ensure you comply with and progress those principles. These measures should be objective, credible, widely recognised and potentially monitored by another party. They show that as a brand you are committed to what you believe and that you operate within a clear metric framework. For example, if you are a beer brand, and one of your principles is that you will be a responsible and sustainable consumer of water, then you need to have measures in place that show what you mean by responsible and sustainable. They could be a globally recognised standard for water purity or a specific group’s recommendation on the amount of water you recycle. They should clearly show where you have purposefully set the bar and on what authority.

4. You need to set in place actions that contribute to you achieving your measures and that correlate directly with the measures you have put in place. These show how you are systematically working to achieve clearly defined and articulated goals. Those measures could include things you do as well as organisations or initiatives you support, research you have underway and aspects of your operations that you are monitoring and/or changing to reach the measures you have set. Such actions are a great way to involve your people internally and can deliver real bottom-line benefits in the way of untapped efficiencies. They also make sure that you continue to operate as a principle-centric organisation.

5. Report succinctly but clearly on what you believe, the frameworks you are using and the progress you are making with actions. It doesn’t have to be a huge CSR report. It could be a page on your website or part of your marketing.

Most of these ideas seem self-evident on reflection but it’s remarkable how many brands do not have a social approach like this in place. What that means is that when they are criticised in the media by an activist brand, they don’t know enough about who they’re dealing with, they don’t have a set of principles they can refer to, there are few or no measures that they can cite and there’s a mad scramble to find the facts as the phone starts ringing and Twitter goes mad.

Everything then comes down to a fight over actions, and a discussion conducted purely at that level is very difficult to win because it quickly becomes ‘they say … we say’ and your brand inevitably comes across as defensive.

You can use a similar Principles – Measures – Actions – Report process for other key aspects of your social brand too, such as your sponsorships. Let’s come back to that …


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