Brand Resilience and the New Art of Playing Defense

Last Updated May 24, 2011 6:27 AM EDT

Just a few weeks ago, at the urging of client Facebook, two executives at Burson-Marsteller tried to spread an anti-Google smear campaign suggesting that bloggers and advocates criticize Google's privacy policy. Rather than stir up media outrage, their awkward emails were turned against them by the same bloggers and newspapers they were pitching. Three brands were hurt--who is recovering?

Just a few weeks ago, Sony's Playstation network was hacked, compromising the identities and credit card numbers of millions of customers. The event stirred anti-Sony reaction worldwide among techies and gamers. What has Sony done to inform the global audience of tech consumers that it is ensuring the online gaming economy is secure?

Just a few days ago, The New York Times and other media reported on a brand crisis for the consumer review site, Yelp: underground entrepreneurs are selling fake 'good' restaurant and product reviews and corrupting Yelp's credibility. Haven't many consumers already wised up to spamming and astroturf of consumer reviews?

Protecting and managing brand reputation is a major issue for leaders and marketers in every business. A new book offers valuable strategies and tactics to help you protect your brand, manage risk, and stage a recovery from attacks in our hyper-connected info-economy.

In Brand Resilience: Managing Risk and Recovery in a High-Speed World (Palgrave 2011) by Jonathan Copulsky, chief marketing officer at Deloitte Consulting's Strategy and Operations group, you'll learn how to play brand defense and win. To do that, you'll be taking a deep dive into monitoring, using, and deploying social media to engage your customers, employees, advocates, and stakeholders.

Traditional marketing theory often relies on the metaphor of marketing as warfare, portraying the marketing executive as the general deploying troops and resources in a campaign to reach defined sequential objectives, to conquer market share. For Copulsky, the theory is out of date. Instead, Copulsky argues marketers now must think and act like counterinsurgents, drawing inspiration from the military's counterinsurgency manual. And he has a seven-step plan to guide you:

  1. Assess risks to your brand: you need to hone your risk intelligence and learn where and why brand attacks can happen. Scan the environment for brand risks resulting from changes to operations--licensing deals, new product launches, changes in suppliers, changes in pricing, new hires, outsourcing changes. When threats arise, they often source from customers, reviewers, gadflies, and ideologues.
  2. Galvanize your brand troops: Your entire team needs to engage in preventing and mitigating brand sabotage. In any organization, leadership has to educate, train, and motivate employees in this new aspect of employee communication and brand management. Companies need to write guidelines for using social media, and teach brand resilience as a competency. Kodak, for example, promotes a social media policy with ten rules reflecting "Kodak values", such as "keep your cool" and "heed security warnings and pop-ups." Yahoo issues a personal blog policy that includes legal parameters and best practices. Copulsky recommends your social media policy:
  • acknowledges potential value of social media to the company and the individuals involved;
  • highlights relevant legal issues;
  • identifies core principles, particularly as they relate to privacy and transparency;
  • spells out expectations for individual involvement, and aligns with expectations for employee conduct;
  • asks employees to take on a positive role in protecting the brand.
3. Deploy early warning systems for brand risk. While you have to live with the reality that you're not going to prevent every possible incident of brand sabotage, focus on building early warning capabilities that allow you reduce the time you spend in a defensive posture. Put together an informal team that monitors online and other chatter and brainstorms reactions. Develop filters to assess what is relevant.
The online tool Ushahidi.com, an open source project developed by Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh, is an enormously effective social media application that crowdsources crisis or online information. It allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline, aggregating data from people on a team or in a network. Information is mapped by source, time (and location if offline), showing the hot spots where significant activity is recorded. Ushahidi maps have publicized government violence in Kenya, emergency needs in Haiti, and forest fires in Italy--and are very effective in monitoring and filtering online buzz about your brand.
4. Repel the attacks on your brand. Copulsky describes attacks as "brand shocks"--violent, sudden, unexpected or traumatic acts or events--such as those mentioned at the top of the post. When a brand shock happens, you step back and evaluate it as a series of discrete events you will manage over time. This helps to isolate variables, identify key audiences, and mobilize your team despite internal panic. The brand shock unfolds in three stages--the brand shock itself, the time when you become aware of the brand shock, and the time when the brand shock becomes public knowledge. You can make preemptive responses through internal changes between stages two and three. Your public response will require a meaningful apology, remedial steps, and a plan to rectify the mistakes (as required or not by circumstances).
5. Learn and adapt your brand defenses. Make each brand shock an opportunity to inform and motivate peers and superiors about the importance of maintaining brand defenses and resilience. Your mantra is to learn and adapt. Every time you experience a brand shock, ensure your team logs the incident, describes what happened, investigates the cause without assigning blame, formulates recommendations, assigns responsibility for implementation, and tracks progress.

6. Measure and track brand resilience. Measure customer views of your brand through a variety of sources, including posing as a customer, focus groups, surveys, and loyalty measurements. Track them through brand shocks to learn how they've been affected. Don't overanalyze data. Look for major swings from the norm. Your brand is almost always going to have a core of repeat and loyal customers, a regular turnover of new customers, and a broad middle swath of occasional customers. How are each of these cohorts responding to a brand shock?

7. Generate popular support. Educate peers and other divisions about the importance of brand resilience. Communicate, cultivate, and engage blogger, media, and consumer brand advocates who like to talk about and promote your company. It's hard to be an effective counterinsurgent when your passionate followers don't support you. Pay particular attention to grievances brand advocates may have, keep media informed, be open and over communicate.

What strategies have you used to recover from online attacks on your firm's reputation or its products and services? Are Copulsky's approaches realistic in smaller firms?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo by Keith Allison.
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.