Brands need a well polished shield says Steve Earl, MD, Europe at Zeno

“Make it harder for mud to stick. Keep your reputational shield polished”. Those are the opening words of the eighth chapter of #brandvandals, a book that I’ve written with my long-time cohort Stephen Waddington, European digital and social media director at Ketchum Public Relations. Yes the title is a hashtag, and yes that means all online conversation about the book should be easy to assess and respond to. Even the book has something of its own reputational shield.

Mud does stick of course. Brands with poor reputations will attract more of it, brands that have poor behaviour will find it lingers longer, and brands that screw up will find themselves caked in it for a period of time. But with the right focus on and priority attached to reputation, and appropriate application to modern media, brands can be on the front foot when facing their audiences – with a polished shield held high.

Two-way media’s transparency and immediacy mean that there’s really no way of avoiding this extremity of public scrutiny any more anyway. More progressive brands have realised that the rules of the audience identification and mapping game have changed. Audiences no longer sit in discrete camps without talking to each other. Of course, they never really did, but now the ability of those groups to influence each other as well as individuals to influence each other is strikingly clear.

From shareholders to customers, from managers to suppliers, from employees to customers and from policymakers to compliance managers, one fact is now front and centre of how brands plan to tell stories about and relevant to themselves, and how they look to protect themselves from the finger-pointing of others. It is that you simply can’t say one thing to one group of people, and something else to another. You will be rumbled.

It is important to work out what audience post the greatest threat, what type of defences are likely to be most effective and what practical measures are needed to counter the harshest criticism. It is vital to engage positive audiences in order to corral support in lieu of unwarranted or unfair attacks by negative audiences. Trust is a central ingredient of a reputational shield. What the brand does, rather than what it says, will have the greatest bearing on keeping the shield polished.

Planning for this kind of audience engagement requires a greater degree of sophistication than has been needed in the past, because audiences and media are so interconnected that mud travels fast and can be more difficult to shift. A well-polished shield is not only a useful defensive weapon, it’s an asset that can make brands less open to unjust mud-slinging in the first place.

Steve Earl, managing director, Europe, Zeno

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