Brand Vandalism: probing the internet’s dirty work

The internet has disrupted and revolutionised practically every sector it has touched. In particular, it has utterly changed the media, and how people consume and share information.

That’s pretty obvious, but less obvious is how and where the darkest forms of disruption are going on in a PR sense – deliberate brand sabotage online. It’s a murky place where few wish to tread.

Brand Vandalism, a new book coming out this October, explores a phenomenon that represents both enormous threat and substantial opportunity for brands: action by detractors to sabotage reputation deliberately. I previewed some of the book’s contents at a discussion event in London last Thursday, and thought some of the points might be interesting to be people reading this blog slot. Cynics might say this is all in aid of book sales, but believe me the royalties don’t make that a factor.

Brand Vandalism is a follow-up book to Brand Anarchy, published in early 2012 by Bloomsbury. Brand Anarchy tackled the fears that communicators and senior executives have about the internet and its potential to wreck their brands’ reputations. Its conclusion was that while reputation can never be controlled, it can be better commanded through more sophisticated planning and an understanding of how converged media work together.

Yet the question most often asked by readers was a simple one – how bad can it get? Brand Vandalism is an attempt to answer that. The first half of the forthcoming book looks at most of the most ‘dangerous’ people for brands on the internet: how they think, how they choose to act and how dirty their tactics might become as they look to sabotage how brands are perceived.

Brand Vandalism has been co-written by Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington and I. My section is the second half, which examines what brands can do to minimise vandalism risk, but actually work to get on the front foot through planned brand advocacy and changes to how they communicate. A central theme here is that it cuts both ways – the internet may have made brands more accessible to their detractors, but it can bring advocates closer to brands too.

The Greenpeace evolution

The event also heard about how Greenpeace, one of the most prominent brand activist groups and a campaigner rather than a vandal, has modernised its techniques with the rise of two-way digital media. In the view of Nic Seton, digital campaigner for Greenpeace, the internet has both empowered Greenpeace and levelled the playing field.

“Society currently operates in a democratic deficit that facilitates corporate profiteering over social, environmental and economic concerns, as well as citizen disenfranchisement. Low-cost, distributed communications technology is the greatest threat available to that mode,” he told me in research for the book.

Greenpeace appreciates that it is addressing a wise audience, one sensitive to hypocrisy and that is setting the rules of the ‘game’. It also believes the internet has had an additive effect on its communications:  conversation as well as broadcast information, relationships as well as radicalism, adaptation as well as innovation. In what Greenpeace calls a renaissance in international social organisation, Nic set out five audience expectations that help shape its campaigns:

  • Be social, not rude or anti-corporate
  • Inspire people through storytelling
  • Bad relations spoil the party
  • Demonstrate interdependence
  • Fail fast and be humble

During the group discussion, brand and PR managers and media contacts who came along talked about how brand sabotage or crisis stories now spread across conventional and social media, how to distinguish between brand attacks and routine complaints, and the complexities of how audiences now expect brands to respond.

While every brand is different, and every story brings its own unique challenges, here are some principal thoughts raised in Brand Vandalism that can help brands to ensure they’re ready to deal with the new and most demanding of reputational challenges:

  1. Develop an early warning system: review your current monitoring systems and response processes so that action can be in minutes, depending on the scenario
  2. Ensure that the most senior people in the organisation really understand the implications
  3. Take a systematic approach to building and maintaining a reputation ‘shield’: not just a system, but a mindset
  4. At all times, remember that fundamentally it is far more about what you do and far less about what you say
  5. Learn to become comfortable with greater transparency, in a way that’s appropriate for your brand or sector. Equally, be aware that information is far more accessible today and it’s better to be on the front foot
  6. Engage and nurture advocates that can support your cause when the brand is attacked, anchored on a clear, expansive and truthful brand story
  7. Mobilise the support of staff and partners too through planned engagement
  8. Ensure that this effort starts with public relations, but extends into all areas of the organisation. It cannot be disjointed
  9. Remember that while short-term improvements can be made, this is a long-term commitment to brand value
  10. There are skills and organisational considerations that are crucial to developing communications teams capable of tacking all of this. But more on that in the book

Brand Vandalism is out in October. Expect more gentle plugs beforehand.

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