Protect Your Brand in Cyberspace

Editor's note: The following opinion article is the second in a three-part series by guest columnist Richard S. Levick, the president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, the world's largest crisis communications firm. Levick is the co-author of 'Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference' and writes for bulletproofblog.com. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 3. Levick welcomes your comments here.

For anyone who doubts the impact of social media, consider the following statistics: Bloggers outnumber traditional journalists 100-to-one; Facebook has more than 200 million active users, most of whom are over 30 years old; eight hours of new content is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day; and, according to a recent report in The New York Times, 14 million people visited Twitter 99 million times last month to post or read updates.

Do you know what all these people are saying about your brand, your company, and its leadership?

The meteoric rise of social media presents a multitude of challenges for those responsible for protecting brand credibility and safeguarding public trust. How can a company protect its interests in cyberspace, where sources often are no longer vetted and rumor carries the weight of fact?

Consider two strategic responses:

  • First, the blogosphere and social media provide a powerful early warning system that can alert companies to potentially damaging issues before they ever reach the mainstream press. Companies that realize this can nip problems in the bud. With more than three-quarters of traditional journalists watching blogs, Facebook and Twitter for story ideas, it's becoming clear that social media, rather than traditional media, have become the assignment editors of the 21st Century (and the instant pollsters for politicians seeking to expediently identify their victims and villains). Your communications team can get a substantial advantage by actively listening to the online conversation about your company. If you don't seize that advantage, your adversaries will.
  • Second, digital media allow dynamic two-way conversational engagement, offering unique opportunities for companies to not only share their messages at the earliest possible point, and thus shape ensuing traditional commentary, but also to directly interact with their stakeholders in order to build a reservoir of goodwill that they can draw on if and when crises occur.

Monitoring

Public companies can no longer afford to wait for the stone tablets of traditional media to alert them that they are in crisis. Conversations surrounding modern brand crises often go on for days before they reach CNN or The Wall Street Journal.

That is why it's so vitally important for corporate communications teams to watch for every mention of their operations, their corporate leadership and their brands. When companies implement such oversight programs, they are able to respond quickly to brand threats in real time, engaging users of social media in conversations that can fundamentally change a critical narrative before it appears on the radar screens of traditional media.

Engaging

Of course, not every mention of a company in social media merits a response, and companies must make careful decisions before doing so. But once companies decide to engage in the online conversation, they need to follow two basic guidelines:

  • Companies must respond with the speed in which the medium operates -- that is, in real time. As recent crises have demonstrated, criticisms that don't receive prompt responses can snowball and rapidly turn a small problem into a crisis with incalculable consequences.
  • Transparency and accountability are critical. Tech-savvy social media users have a multitude of tools and millions of online fact-checking cohorts to rapidly differentiate fact from fiction. In times of crises, run to the light with your messaging. Engage the online media identified by your monitors as potential sources of coverage with honesty and openness.

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The lesson here is simple: Treat the newest members of the Fourth Estate just as you would their forbears -- with respect, authenticity and honesty.

Bulletproof the Brand

Here's perhaps the most important thing to remember about social media: It isn't just a valuable crisis management tool; it can also help prevent crises altogether. When a company uses the digital space to proactively share its messages with key stakeholders, it places potential online critics on the defensive against already established perceptions of openness and accountability. It likewise builds a cadre of third-party allies who can come to the company's support if needed.

For those ready to make their first foray into the social media, bear in mind the following:

  • Remain vigilant. Just as good conversations require more than one sentence, effective engagement of the digital media marketplace requires sustained commitment.
  • Diversify your messengers. The online community isn't only interested in how the C-Suite sees things. They want to know what the rank-and-file think as well as board members and independent analysts.
  • Make it a true conversation. Your online dialogue should not be about you, but rather about issues of direct concern to your stakeholders.

Companies that make a lasting commitment to monitoring, engaging, and building relationships in the digital space will find the returns well worth the investment -- both in times of crisis and relative calm.

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