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June 5, 2013

Keeping Up (Social) Appearances

Posted by Sandeep Dadlani (View Profile | View All Posts) at 2:19 PM


One of the funniest sitcoms on British television was "Keeping Up Appearances," which chronicled the hilarious attempts of the show's main character, Hyacinth, doing everything she could to hobnob with the denizens of high society. What made the show so funny was that whenever she was about to socialize with, say, a nobleman, members of her working-class family would stumble onto the scene, embarrass her, and ruin her social aspirations.

Today's Internet is not unlike the world of the socially ambitious Hyacinth.

Organizations might spend decades carefully cultivating a certain image only to have a comment or opinion from some unhappy or rogue customer - or worse, a senior employee - go viral. Then, much like the culmination of that weekly sitcom, the organization's reputation takes a blow and much of their brand building dissipates in the wink of an eye. Just like it has for clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, stuck in a social media mess of its leadership's making. An official apology simply hasn't washed with the public, and even celebrities like Kirstie Alley and Ellen DeGeneres have piled up the criticism against the brand for its offensive exclusionary attitude.

To be sure, an open and collaborative Web is one of the greatest developments of the past decade. Social forums like Twitter and Facebook have grown so influential that they can do everything from moving financial markets to dictating fashion trends. But social media's rise has also come with the sobering fact that an enterprise's branding is now a two-way street. A firm's brand equity, built over decades can instantly vanish because of a string of comments in cyberspace - even if the comments are untrue.

What's making companies take notice is that even the most responsible, ethically upright, or legally compliant among them can fall victim to an onslaught of angry remarks on the Internet. Take the case of Applebee's, which was the target of social media outrage earlier this year. For the benefit of those who don't know why, here's the short version: A pastor refused to leave a tip, saying that she gave God 10%. She wrote this on her receipt, no less, which soon found its way to a popular social media site. In response, Applebee's sacked the employee who published the note, for violating customer privacy. The social universe wasn't amused and retaliated in the only way it knows - with protest pages on Facebook and campaigns demanding that the server be reinstated.

A recent survey of 235 corporate directors conducted by one of America's largest accounting firms revealed that their biggest concern, after financial risk, was reputational risk. Some 73 percent ranked it right on top, ahead of cyber security even. What's also interesting is that since the first survey four years ago, reputational risk has risen a whopping 19 percent among the list of concerns, which also included regulatory compliance and chief executive succession planning.

Today, a single negative news item can change a company's reputation in an instant. It used to be much easier for companies to get out ahead of the news, or should the worst happen, mount a damage control offensive through their Public Relations agency. With social media however, it's either proactive or nothing.

That realization has spawned a new category of media specialists, rather unimaginatively branded "reputational defenders", tasked with building engagement, protecting image, and guarding against reputation risk.

These professionals are more than just social media gurus; they're masters of new technologies like sentiment analysis and other Big Data mining techniques that help a company stay ahead of what's trending on the Internet. They aggregate blogs, wikis, customer call records, and just about any other structured or unstructured digital trail. And they swing into action the moment they find even a glimmer of unfavorable chatter - Did someone just question the firm's commitment to sustainability? Don't bother to talk back, announce a sweeping green initiative instead.

Organizations that are yet to plunge into social media might want to engage reputational defenders right from the start to ensure they land on their feet. Attack might have been the best form of defense in traditional media, but in social, it is just the opposite.


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