Everyone’s a critic, as the saying goes. In the era of social media, things big and small can have an outsized impact on your brand. Issues big and small can impact brand perception, from external factors beyond your control to internal decisions made in the boardroom; even minor mistakes made by an employee can reflect poorly on the company. One way or another, almost half of companies surveyed have been affected by or concerned about press material. When you add in the risk faced by negative reviews, especially when those reviews can be untrue or misleading, there is no shortage of obstacles in brand management.

Rather than deny this and hope nothing goes wrong, prepare for the fact that something almost definitely will. And by keeping in mind three simple steps, you can be ready if and when it does.

Build A Brand Strong Enough to Take Some Hits…

To repair a damaged reputation, you must have a reputation worth repairing. The best way to do that is to do all you can to have a strong positive association with your brand’s core values. This can come from many possibilities, and I have written about simple ways to get started. Creating a solid association with your branding from the beginning can be half of the battle. When I started Yellow Tree Marketing, I had this at the forefront of my mind. Having left decades of work in corporate spaces for the non-profit sector, I wanted to find a more sustainable way to have an impact - a model that could be replicated by any and all businesses that take their social responsibilities seriously.

In short, keep it simple. Our name and logo represent to our customers what I chose to use as the foundation: we will plant a tree for every new client we get. Our clients know this from the beginning, giving them a sense of ownership over the program. We partnered with an organization to plant the trees and keep our clients and were updated about their growth. And by keeping it simple and partnering with the right people, you can inspire others to realize they don’t need to solve worldwide problems on their own; they just need to start small. Just as the impact of my program can (and literally will) grow over time, so can small steps taken now to help establish your brand. Doing so will give you a stronger platform to overcome any reputational hurdles, making you more readily available to repair the damage.

…And Trust Those Hits Will Come

Because despite all of this, I have no doubt my company will be forced to overcome difficulties in the future. With all the different ways one can go viral for all the wrong reasons, in an interconnected and increasingly online world of nonstop refreshes, a brand management plan must be aware of all the moving parts. Just as I doubt my company will encounter unforeseen problems, so any brand management plan will face setbacks.

For the same reason, you must prepare for something going wrong because nobody can foresee and prepare for every possibility. Any plan put in place must keep this in mind because you will always have to adapt - no plan survives first contact with the enemy. You must understand that even with a strong brand identity or a plan in place, such an identity relies on your relationship with your customers, and all relationships are built on trust. Just as trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, so too with brand identity unless you make sure your customers know that you truly stand for what you say you stand for.

Those Hits May Be of Historic Proportions…

Earlier this year, we saw a truly historic event. While the political consequences are still being investigated and the historic impact will be felt for years to come, the January 6th Capitol Attack rocked our government and the brands behind so many elected officials. Although we are still learning how things were able to happen as they did that day, at the time, there was little doubt about how we got there. Months of lies fueled a mob that sought to overturn the will of the American people, and the American people were not happy about it. When, amidst the rubble and wreckage, 147 members of Congress still went on to vote against the certification of the election results, there was an outcry.

While many had participated in the lies leading up to that day, this vote mere hours after rioters had been cleared from the halls caused an intense backlash. With companies seeking how to navigate the fallout, dozens announced they would cease political donations to those 147 elected officials. These officials had spent months making overturning the will of the American people part of their brand, and their vote following the riot epitomized that. Any companies who continued to support them with donations risked having that association become part of their brand as well.

…Or A Mere Sixty-Four Characters

Events like the Attack on the Capitol represent what I spoke about above, an event with such magnitude that few could have foreseen in time to include in a reputational damage plan. Events of this scale do happen, and when there is that much outcry, the path toward damage control will be clear. However, small mistakes, seemingly insignificant or minor events, are much more common that can still have a devastating impact on brand identity. In this case, recall the incident from 2013 in which someone with a mere 170 followers sent out the Tweet Heard Round The World. Sent before boarding an eleven-hour flight, by the time she landed, tens of thousands of responses ensured it would cost her her job, her reputation, and even that of her family. As she said, she wasn’t trying “to piss off the world or ruin my life,” but that is precisely what happened.

Less than sixty seconds were spent sending out sixty-four characters, but a single tweet can be all it takes.

Always Be Ready

As the above examples show, big or small actions can have devastating consequences. With social media platforms and smartphones seemingly keeping everyone connected at all times, an incident big or small can be started by something seemingly insignificant as an employee sending out a tweet. Perception is everything, and once that perception is out there, it will eat away at any established credibility until it is addressed. Rather than hope that no mistakes will be made, that it will be smooth sailing, prepare for bumpy waters. As mentioned before, building a reliable brand trusted by your customers is essential. But no matter how strong your brand, you must have a strategy for mitigating reputational damage when it happens.

First: Always Act Fast

Most importantly, react as quickly as possible. The more time information has to circulate without a response, the stronger it will get and the more damage it will do. You can never act quickly enough - when protecting and repairing your brand’s reputation, sooner is always better. It may seem obvious, but the more quickly you respond, the more quickly your customers will see your response. In the example above where the woman tweeted before boarding a plane, many have speculated her being out of contact for eleven hours contributed to it escalating to worldwide trending news. The longer that tweet circled cyberspace without any other news from her, the more that became her brand identity. Things could have been much different if she had responded more quickly.

So too with your brand. The longer you let something circulate without acting, it will gain a life of its own. As mentioned earlier, negative reviews can hurt your company if left unaddressed. But 89% say they are highly or fairly likely to use a company that responds to all of its reviews. Furthermore, rather than leaving a negative review alone to avoid drawing attention to it, engaging with a dissatisfied customer and working to resolve the issue will reflect well on your company and your brand. Nobody is perfect, and nobody expects you to be. Being seen as a brand that proactively works to resolve even minor customer issues will make your brand more believable and trustworthy when working to resolve more significant problems.

And while quick response time is always optimal, it is never too late. If you allow minor complaints to go unresolved, they will snowball, and when you seek to address something in the future, you will not have the credibility built up. You will be much less likely to be perceived as genuinely desiring resolution. Resolving the little things builds up the trust in you, in your brand, as one genuinely seeks to fix, rather than paper over, problems.

Second: Customers Care - Make Sure They Know You Know They Do, And You Do Too

With social media creating an interconnected space, one to which we are almost always connected, and to which everything gets shared, know that your customers care how you and your brand choose to occupy that space. Unfavorable content in the news or circulating through the social media sphere will be seen by customers, with roughly 31 percent of companies reporting unfavorable content having had a damaging effect on their reputation. Consumers will take note if your brand gets a positive or negative reputation. Pay attention and listen, and address issues accordingly.

Customers will tell you if they disapprove of actions being taken by your brand, with the rise of the conscious consumer leading to increased willingness to demand change. Just as acting fast enables you to get ahead of a problem, genuine action is also essential. Attempts to obscure or paper over problems in the past have done companies more harm than good. This will lead to the exact opposite of the benefits hoped for. Acting under pretenses will lead to a more significant breach of the trust in your brand, with negative headlines and a downward spiral. But you can regain and strengthen their trust in your brand by listening and genuinely reacting to customer concerns.

Third: Ask For Help

Decades ago, Nike faced grave concerns about horrific labor abuses in its supply chain. Rather than brush those concerns aside or attempt to market around them, Nike took them seriously. They undertook a severe overhaul of their supply chain and embraced unprecedented transparency. They set a model for reacting to brand-altering developments and implemented something other companies can still learn from.

Learning from your own mistakes is essential, but learning from the mistakes of others is arguably more. It enables you to proactively avoid making mistakes, avoiding any controversies or damage that may be caused by slipping up. Everything is an opportunity to learn, and knowing how to respond is a lesson best taught by experience. By reaching out to those at other companies who have overcome brand-damaging developments, and especially reaching out to experts when necessary, knowing where to go and having a genuine willingness to get help when necessary will reflect well on your brand in the short term and strengthen it in the long term.

If you follow these three steps, you will be able to react and adapt to any reputational damage that you may encounter. Mistakes will happen, and errant tweets will be sent or posts shared, but they can be overcome. By building a solid brand identity, you can best position yourself to deal with the problems as they come. Because reputational damage is best addressed before any problems arise, building credibility and identity over time is best positioning you to capably handle what may come.

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