Digital technology has transformed the way we do business with social media being the most significant catalyst in the mix. Multiple new additional touchpoints has widened our customer reach to levels never experienced before but conversely has also added new levels of complexity in the management and understanding of that intricate web of communications.
Not only can brands can now foster new relationships with potential new customers online through multiple social media channels but they can also be the beneficiaries of increased exposure from loyal customers who spread their ‘brand’ message positively for them.
What happens though when digital activists use online media against your brand? How do you respond, mitigate risk and protect your brand’s reputation?
The trend of digital activism, or ‘clicktivism’ that has emerged over the last few years has seen a significant shift in the way groups worldwide are getting attention for their causes.
Injunctions might prevent activists from physically getting close to your company property but online activity has fast become the platform of choice with its mobility and potential speed of impact.
While some digital activism has spurred real life action, for brands the real danger of armchair activism results not in high-risk big movements but rather, in equally damaging effects to brand reputation, perception and image, from online activities.
Don’t be tempted to allow your legal team to throw their weight around too quickly. You’ll be rapidly tried in a court of public opinion . . . and you will loose if handled badly.
Top 5 Tips to Safeguarding Your Brand Against Digital Activism
Typically digital activism is a person, or group of people who seek to pressurize or damage the reputation of a brand, using online means, because they disagree with the policy, ethos or activities of the company in question.
As with traditional brand risk management, safeguarding your brand against potential online damage starts with preempting future issues that may arise from brand activity and having the necessary preparation and scenario planning in place to deal with the situation if it presents itself.
1. Don’t Give Digital Activists the Attention They Crave
Viral sensations rarely stem from positive interactions between companies and customers. Digital activists are looking to maximize attention for their cause, which requires provoking activities to make an impact.
Responding to unfounded claims and negativity with heavy handed clumsiness can often do more harm than good for the brand under fire. What might have been a small and insignificant post can quickly turn into an inflammatory issue with prolonged consequences for the brand if a company responds to provocation inappropriately.
Remember, digital activists do not gain attention by their online posts alone. They require other online users to interact, become incendiary and spread the word too.
Sensationalism and stunts often loose credibility for digital activists. If you have built a strong brand reputation, authentically embrace your fans, then taking the high road and not responding can have a more positive effect on your customers. Conversely, ill-thought out or poorly worded responses can have even loyal customers becoming incensed and sharing the exchange online.
2. Preempt: Take Control of Your Online Brand Assets
Every great brand is built on a promise to its customers with a foundation of strong core values. If you believe in your brand values then you need to preempt and recognize any negative issues that others may have with your activities and take precautionary measures to safeguard your brand.
Customers are quick to recognize fake products and knock-off brands when they see them offline. In the digital world the ability for others to take control of online domain names, twitter handles, logo variations or Facebook profile names means that your brand is increasingly at risk from imposters.
Create dormant social media profiles for your brand, using any potential variations of your brand that may otherwise be hijacked by digital activists. Include SEO key words in blogs websites, and buy up similar domains to ensure that you control your brand communications.
Shell Oil is under consistent attack from Greenpeace digital activists who use social media and digital tools to protest against the company’s drilling activities in the Arctic. Using a website with a brand imaging and creative fake social network profiles, Greenpeace sabotaged the brand reputation and gained significant coverage for their cause when their tactics went viral.
3. Be Sincere: Take Responsibility When You Are in The Wrong
Sometimes brands makes mistakes and are in the wrong. They are after all, managed by humans and nobody is infallible. Customers don’t escalate to extreme action instantly, they build to a boiling point which means you have time, all be it very short, to diffuse a potential firestorm. You must have the right pre-considered planning in place though to resolve problems quickly and effectively.
Brands are unlikely to suffer major damage to image unless there are numerous instances of poor customer experiences. If other customers empathize with a cause it can escalate rapidly. Saying sorry and dealing with real customer issues can save brands a lot of future embarrassment and long term reputational damage, not to mention loss of hard earned trust, profitable revenue and market share.
One disgruntled Vodafone customer whose problem was ignored by the company created www.vodafail.com to allow all frustrated customers to vocalize their negative brand experiences. This would never have happened if the customers’ grievance had been acknowledged and addressed appropriately – quickly!
In 2009 United Airlines baggage handles broke guitars belonging to Canadian band Sons of Maxwell. When their request for the company to replace their guitars was ignored the band wrote a song ‘United breaks Guitars’ which currently has over 12 million views on YouTube. Think what that’s cost the business in lost revenue and brand damage, versus acknowledging their mistake and replacing the broken guitars.
4. Influence the Influencers
Digital Activists rely on customers, shareholders, bloggers, journalists and other influencers to give credence to their cause and spread word of their activities.
Develop a relationship with your key brand influencers. Create and sustain an open dialogue so if instances of digital activism against your brand occur, your brand is asked for a response before public comment is made.
If the digital activists make claims that are deceitful in an online space then this only demonstrates their contempt for the public. Journalists and bloggers do not want to risk their credibility by highlighting the cause of those who create brand sabotage without basis. Having an open dialogue with these influencers can prevent the spread of negative brand associations.
5. Integrate Digital Technology into Your Brand Risk Management Strategy
Define and develop your brands online social media policies as a fully integrated part of your brand risk management strategy. Employee training regarding the digital management of your brand is a must. Distribute, articulate, train, assess, reiterate and frequently revisit your personnel training throughout the company, top down.
Fine Gael unfortunately learned the hard way about what can happen if you mismanage online communications. By deleting a comment on their Facebook page regarding gay marriage the party suffered major backlash and a prolonged online debate about the situation.
Remember brands are built on trust. They make emotional connections with their target audiences that must be compelling, authentic and convincing. If the brand deviates or behaves inconsistently or inappropriately it can be very difficult to rebuild and earn that trust again.
It’s vital you nurture, respect and protect your relationship with your customers diligently. Listen, monitor, engage and above all demonstrate integrity and respect – step into your audiences’ shoes, no matter how uncomfortable!
• Is your brand safeguarded against digital activism?
• Have you identified potential areas of risk and likelihood, on and offline, to your business/brand that might attract digital activist backlash?
• Have you integrated brand risk management with preparation and scenario planning and policy development into your overall brand strategy?