How To Navigate Your Brand’s Bad Reputation



The social web is a powerful tool for consumers. It enables them to find exactly what they need, and even find out why other people like or dislike the very thing they are searching for. It’s a double-edged sword, however – one that can tank a brand quickly in public perception. Even brands that everyone loves have been felled by the power of the web.

What do you do when your company is politically sensitive by nature, experienced a turbulent past, or has some questionable backstory? You can’t really hide in the new economy.

Triage: Is it a temporary or permanent blemish?

It’s important to know which kind of pain point your brand might carry. A permanent problem is something that has happened in the past that you can’t change (or at least, that you aren’t able to alter people’s perception about). An example of this would be if your company was involved in controversial business dealings that made the news. Public perception has already issued you a verdict, and you can’t change it.

A temporary blemish could be something along the lines of your company pushing back a product launch several times, or providing terrible customer care. For these types of issues it is still possible to make things right or change perceptions (or at least show your brand’s side).

Once you’ve identified whether your blemish is permanent or temporary, it’s time to tackle the message.

Overcoming your problem

Permanent problems should be handled with consistency and official messaging. You should put together a messaging matrix with the complete details of the incident, sourced from what has been reported. Search the news (you can use a social media monitoring and analytics platform like MAP, powered by Sysomos, to do this).

Forge official replies to every question the public might have. If you are unsure, you should conduct a search on your brand sentiment to find out what pain points are brought up most. Search forums for unabashed comments to drive your official messaging responses.

Make sure everyone on your team who has contact with the outside world has access to this documentation. This means even people who answer phones or go out on calls to public places.

For temporary problems, consider the following action plan to successfully maneuver around your issue:

  • Get in front of the story.  Just like with a permanent pain point, you will need to put all of the details of the transgression together and use this to craft your messaging matrix. Include things that may not have made it into public knowledge yet. You never know when something might happen, and you don’t want to be caught unprepared.
  • Create messaging that reflects sensitivity and sounds sincere. If your brand’s difficulty involves something that could be highly emotionally charged for people, you need to put thought and care into what your messaging will be. You need to express sympathy, contrition, and a commitment to making the problem right, or you run the risk of exacerbating the situation and not resolving it. It’s important for your brand to appear human, and humans are sensitive and apologize when it matters.
  • Apologize and have an action plan to make it right. The biggest problem brands get themselves into when trying to right a wrong is not actually apologizing. In the social web world, you can no longer use a non-apology like “I’m sorry if offense was caused.” Pre-supposed offense was caused; apologize for your role in the issue. Think about what steps you can take immediately to make the issue right. Often, this honesty and effort will calm the storm for most of the public, and you can move forward more easily.
  • Emphasize the good your company does. If it doesn’t, it’s an opportunity to involve the community in that decision. Your brand should already be involved in some good works or charity programs. Emphasize these good works (but not in a knee-jerk way, trotting the charity out like a prop). It’s important to show off this side of your brand – especially in a crisis. However, if your brand isn’t charitable, or your problem affects a specific group of people, consider inviting your community to help you with worthy causes and create a reparation plan to help heal the problem. You will be surprised how this can defuse a situation once your community takes ownership over the direction your brand will take.

You will never be able to outrun a bad reputation as long as your company is one search away. It’s important to look at a possible brand problem from the perspective of who has been wronged, or how the public will emotionally react to it. Your brand can no longer control the message with water-tight, broadcast talking points. The only way forward is to be as human as possible, apologize properly, and commit to make amends. Consider involving the community.

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