We in the business of business spend a lot of time talking about brand. Brand is something we champion, defend, grow, and seek ambassadors for. It's such an integral part of our conversations (especially in social CRM) that I think some of us forget just what it means.
A little while ago, there was an article in the parody newspaper The Onion titled "'I Am a Brand,' Pathetic Man Says," mocking the overuse of the term. It's a worthwhile read for all of us, because we need a reminder from time to time that brands are living things that have more to them than we know or can control. Almost everybody reading my column—and certainly the guy who's writing it—has been guilty of some of the things mentioned in the article.
The original meaning of brand, at least in conjunction with business, is a mark seared with hot iron into the flesh of livestock as a symbol of ownership. I mention this because it's important to remember that a brand can hurt.
There are brands out there with bad reputations, deserved or otherwise, and they can turn around in moments. You might be going along as usual, but then certain things come to light and you're left holding a bag of dirty laundry—as happened with Nike many years ago, when allegations of overseas sweatshops made it into the public consciousness. The Ford Pinto had such a stigma attached to it for being easily combustible when struck from the rear that it became the butt of every automotive joke in the 1970s, and was soon discontinued. Fixing the problem, which was somewhat overreported and only applied to one model year, wasn't enough to save the Pinto from the scrap heap of history.
Allegations don't even have to be true to ruin you. This was the premise of the classic TV western Branded, starring Chuck Connors as a cavalry officer wrongly accused of cowardice and cashiered out of the army, constantly having to prove his honor to people who only know him as The Coward of Bitter Creek.
What happens when your company is accused (rightly or wrongly) of something awful? What do you do when public opinion turns on you like an angry marmot in a bathtub?
Denying the allegations and waiting for the news cycle to move on to the next scandal doesn't work as well as it once did. Social networks connect people to each other and to topics of interest, and you can't count on an angry mob to just let something drop. Misdirection—changing the topic of conversation to something that makes you look better—doesn't work for similar reasons.
No matter what, you've got to do something if rumors gain traction. Failure to act is even worse than the above strategies, because you are not defending yourself (however poorly), and many people see silence as an admission of guilt. At the very least, you'll look foolish for your deer-in-the-headlights pose.
Owning up to your failings only works if you've actually done something wrong and can show you're taking genuine steps to make amends. If this is the case, it is the only sane course of action. If you are the wronged party, you've got to act fast to find out where the nasty rumors are coming from and expose the source. You can quiet a kidnapping scandal right quick if you prove the victim kidnapped herself.
You may be interested to know that former RightNow CEO Greg Gianforte and social media strategist Paul Gillin have just written a book, Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim, that likely provides some excellent answers to the burning question of how to defend and rescue your reputation in the age of social media. I say likely because, in writer-time, I only just found out about it and haven't even got a copy yet. It will be available to you by now, reader-time. Until then, I abide.
Marshall Lager is The Dude, or His Dudeness, or the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting if you're not into the whole brevity thing. Chat with him about CRM, oat soda, and kidnapping at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.