Loose lips place brand reputation on the line

Marketers must get to grips with the power of social media to destroy a campaign’s message in the blink of an eye

There is no longer any such thing as an unguarded remark. For anyone in a position of power or responsibility, the flippant, the offhand and the humorous aside are things of the past.

Certainly that must have been the way Yahoo! boss Carole Bartz was feeling before Christmas. After she claimed that recent revelations about Tiger Woods’ activities were better for business than the news of Michael Jackson’s death, her views – expressed as a throwaway remark in an analysts’ meeting – were posted online and Bartz was subsequently pilloried for, among other things, praising his infidelity.

Before the internet changed all the rules, this sort of behaviour would barely have earned Bartz a reputation for candour among analysts and journalists. The fact that “racy news” attracts attention is hardly a revelation to anyone who’s followed the tabloid press over the years, or indeed paid any attention to gossip. The problem for people like Bartz lies in the way the culture of social media has led ideas, thoughts and content intended for one person or group of people to be widely shared with others, no matter how far they might be from the original audience in their attitudes and beliefs.

Of course, there are benefits to this. Citizen journalism is the term used for the way people who aren’t media professionals are able to publish information to which they have access and feel should be in the public domain. And the results can be spectacular. Bloggers have debunked spin, exposed lies and uncovered hypocrisy in both business and politics; social media creates networks that can check facts and chase down leads far faster than an individual reporter; mobile phones mean there are cameras present at every incident and that the images they capture can be spread online before traditional broadcast media even has a reporter on site.

In pre-internet times judgments of what should be in the public domain and what should remain private were the responsibility of a small group of editors operating under a loose and changing cultural consensus and a desire to beat the competition, all under the watchful eyes of libel lawyers. In the blogosphere, that responsibility has passed to everyone, with the result that nothing can be truly private. Every remark is potentially addressed to everyone or, at least, everyone with an internet connection.

And while there are obvious benefits in the way this maintains scrutiny of those in positions of power, it’s also worth asking if, in the longer term, it will raise the quality of debate. If everyone is so scared of their every remark being taken out of context and used as a stick to beat them with, can we expect them ever to say anything other than the completely anodyne?

The end result is likely to be a corporate desire to control the flow of information that will make our current obsession with media training and corporate spin seem positively quaint.

And while this is a serious question for CEOs, it also matters to marketers. One of the paradoxes of the internet is that it allows marketing messages to be more targeted than ever before, but it also increases the chance of them being seen outside their target audience. The result is that at as marketers craft ads likely to appeal to precise targets, the risk of someone from outside the target group seeing the ad and complaining about it is even greater. And the internet allows offence and anger to spread very fast.

Unilever has already experienced something of this sort. The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign struck a chord with women all over the world, but then some of them made the connection to another Unilever brand, Lynx, which uses barely clothed models as a staple of its advertising. The discrepancy was noted, and a backlash followed. The lesson for marketers is that campaigns no longer exist in isolation.

Beyond this, we’ve reached a point where a brand’s reputation is no longer determined by the efforts of the marketing department. Instead, it is influenced by every interaction between its parent organisation and the public. The behaviour of one member of staff, no matter how far down the chain of command, can have enormous repercussions for the organisation and the brand, as Transport for London found out to its cost last year.

So it was striking to read recent research by communications group Creston published in New Media Age and on Reputationonline.co.uk that only 18% of senior marketing professionals in big companies believe social media is important to their brand’s reputation now, although almost 90% believe it will have an impact in the future. But as Bartz at Yahoo! and numerous others have discovered, that future is already here.

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