Surviving the Toxic Tweet: Deloitte's Strategies for Protecting a Brand

In an age when bad news and controversy can spread quickly online and taint a venerated brand, organizations need strategies to protect themselves. Bloom Group Partner Tim Parker recently spoke with a thought leader on this topic: Jonathan Copulsky, a Principal at Deloitte Consulting, LLP.

 

Copulsky is the author of “Brand Resilience,” a book that helps companies and other organizations protect their brands from sabotage. The book covers how to determine susceptibility to brand sabotage and provides guidelines for preventing it and minimizing its impact. It also discusses roles and responsibilities within the organization for managing the risks of sabotage and identifies ways to make brand risk intelligence a core competency. Copulsky is also national managing director, eminence at Deloitte; a member of the Board of Advisors at Medill IMC Spiegel Research Initiative; and a board member at Chicago Public Radio.

 

 

Tim Parker:

Why is brand reputation more vulnerable than it used to be?

Jonathan Copulsky:

Three main reasons: the unprecedented value of brand, social media, and increased transparency. First, the value of brand has increased steadily over time. In fact intangibles, including brand, are a growing part of the value of a company’s assets. Brand is one of the largest components, so it has just become a bigger thing to worry about.

Moreover, social media has made it easier for doubts about a brand to go viral. When somebody says something negative about a brand, or raises a question about a brand’s ability to deliver on its promise, it’s very easy for those messages to spread online and persist for a long time.

The third factor is today’s expectations for transparency. People now talk a lot about things that they once kept to themselves: their usage, their habits, their behaviors, and their attitudes. Some of the people having those discussions may be a company’s senior executives, employees, or unhappy customers.

So the higher value of brand, the means for opinions to spread like wildfire, and an attitude favoring transparency have all conspired to make brands more susceptible to sabotage.

T.P.: 

Who causes the most damage to a brand: outsiders or insiders?

J.C.: 

People often worry about sabotage from the outside – for example, unhappy customers, competitors, or third-party reviewers. But they tend to underestimate the unintentional attacks that can come from the inside: managers, employees, suppliers, and supply chain partners. For example, some manufacturers’ supply chains today include global companies whose poor working conditions can suddenly thrust them into the spotlight. However, depending on the company, sabotage can potentially come from anywhere.

T.P.:

Are strong brands with a great reputation any more resilient to shocks than anybody else?

J.C.:

Some brands have proven time and again that they are worthy of trust. They have built those reservoirs of trust from well-established relationships with customers and employees. They can bounce back more easily from setbacks because people believe they will be honorable. They will own up to problems, apologize and make restitutions and reparations. But the trust factor doesn’t always correlate with brand value.

Many factors explain why some brands are more trustworthy than others: employee behavior, transparency, communication, and predictable actions. Both Edelman and Millward Brown — two marketing strategy firms that understand brands — publish annual studies that attempt to quantify the elements of trust. However, when people describe their feelings about a brand, they tend to talk not only about reliability, but also about things that can’t always be measured, such as consistency, transparency, and integrity. Trust starts with leadership, but people also take note of the behaviors of individual employees.

T.P.: 

What sorts of things can companies do over the long-term to build brand resilience?

J.C.:

In the book I have outlined seven actions that companies and other organizations (such as not-for-profits, NGOs and government entities) can take.

First, understand where the potential threats to the brand may be and how serious they are. Then engage your people in detecting, preventing, and mitigating them. Build capabilities and systems for the early detection of an assault on the brand. Have a plan and the means to respond if something does happen. Learn from each incident, and adapt your behavior and tactics. Measure and track how well you manage brand risk and build brand resilience. Finally, build a core of brand ambassadors, both inside and outside the organization, who can help carry the message.

The book talks about how Procter & Gamble handled an incident when somebody complained about Pampers disposable diapers, a $10+ billion brand. P&G mobilized its already-established network of “mommy bloggers” to be a voice to the market and help restore trust. These bloggers were already a part of P&G’s overall marketing strategy, so when they had a potentially brand-damaging incident they were able to activate that network.

T.P.:

It seems that these recommendations are designed to weave brand resilience into the fabric of an organization. This isn’t just about responding appropriately when an incident occurs.

J.C.:

This is very different from crisis management, which is all about responding to a problem after it happens, then fixing your organization to prevent it from happening again. Many companies have already played out scenarios for a potential crisis and have thought about how they would react. That is certainly part of the seven steps, but many of the other steps are about how to embed the capability to sense, anticipate, and respond to a crisis in your organization. It takes a sense of action — playing brand defense as much as you play brand offense.

The fundamental message in the book is that your employees — the people out there who can be your ambassadors — are key to your brand. Research says that in today’s world, rank and file employees have a far greater impact on people’s perceptions of companies than corporate communications, company objectives, advertisements, and other things.

T.P.:

How important, especially for Deloitte, is thought leadership to the brand, and for building brand resilience?

J.C.:

At Deloitte, thought leadership, or eminence, is one of the many tools we use to make our jobs relevant to customers and to ourselves. It expresses our philosophy and the intellectual side of our plan — how we think about industry structure and evolution. Internally, that attracts employees to certain practices within Deloitte. Externally, it’s as important for brand building as many of the more traditional media strategies.

The 55,000+ Deloitte employees, however, are more important to the Deloitte brand than anything else. Every day, their personal and professional interactions influence what people think of us. If they accurately reflect what we’re trying to achieve with our brand, they will be more important than anything else we do. We can reinforce that through advertising, pro bono work, public speaking, public relations, and eminence, or thought leadership. All of this reinforces and reflects what we want to stand for in the marketplace.

T.P.:

Is the firm very deliberate in managing how employees represent the brand, or does Deloitte rely on recruiting the right people into the right culture so it takes care of itself?

J.C.:

We are very deliberate. It starts with recruiting, with the messages that we deliver in recruiting, and carries over to how we promote and train our people. It’s not coincidental that we spent several hundred million dollars building a bricks and mortar facility at Deloitte University, our leadership academy, to help build our brand through our employees. Anybody who has been to the site walks away impressed — not only with the quality of the physical facility, but also with the kinds of interactions that go on there, all of which help employees better represent the brand.

T.P.:

In your book you talk about why a company should have guidelines for social media use. How have you addressed that at Deloitte?

J.C.:

The book stresses that everybody, not just rank and file employees, needs these guidelines. We believe this at Deloitte as well. We want everyone to have a better appreciation of the risks, so that they think about who might read a tweet, how the reader might react, and whether it really makes sense to post it.

Think about the risks of a senior executive using Twitter. He has access to more insider information than a 25-year-old analyst. He may need even more training about what is appropriate to say and reveal than somebody who is two or three years out of college.

Deloitte’s philosophy is that people are responsible for their own external communications. But with training and guidelines, we can help them make better decisions.

T.P.:

Does social media really require special rules?  Or, using Deloitte as an example, can’t you just extend the same standards for any communications medium to social media, especially if people are imbued with the culture and represent the company in the right way?

J.C.:

Yes, one would expect people to communicate with social media using the same set of standards. And we do have policies that govern external communication regardless of the medium — for example, employees’ letters, speeches, and testimonies. Those policies also cover social media. But for now, we need to be a little more focused on social media because it’s new. The rules are unclear; the boundary between what we can say as individuals versus as employees is still being established. And the ways in which information is disseminated are different to what we’re used to.

To give perspective, recently at a meeting I asked senior finance executives from a publicly traded company whether they had Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn accounts. About 90% of them said they did. When I had asked that same question a year ago it was less than 50%. I also asked them when Facebook got started. The answer was 2005, but most people didn’t know that. They assumed it had been around longer. So we’re talking about something that has been around less than 10 years, and if you go back 20 years it wasn’t even a gleam in somebody’s eye, and 30 years ago no one had heard of the Internet.

I’ll bet that something else will replace social media as a top communications challenge someday, but today it still is pretty new. Companies must make sure employees understand how to use it effectively and properly in order to protect their brand.

 

 

 

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