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You can’t always prevent ‘digital wildfire’ – but you can be prepared

Matt Preschern, CMO at HCL Technologies, explains how marketers can stop a crisis from getting out of hand.

Several recent high-profile incidents highlighting how vulnerable brands are to criticism have left the internet abuzz – and their leaders wringing their hands.

When a 21st-century-style reputation crisis hits, it comes in on the gale force winds of live smartphone feeds, instant social media sharing, and malicious attacks by ‘internet trolls’ or opportunistic competitors.

Consumers have lost trust in brands and have higher expectations of companies than ever before. We operate in a 24/7 global world where something is always happening and someone is always watching. Because ‘the sun never sets’ for global brands, a crisis can strike anywhere, anytime, and in any language. When one inevitably does, negative versions of events may be shared hundreds of thousands of times online within mere hours.

Such a ‘digital wildfire’ is coming, and it is the job of the chief marketing officer to get the organisation prepared. Rather than viewing this exercise in terms of mere firefighting, however, brands should regard this is an opportunity to define and galvanise their relationships with their target market – and marketers should view this in the context of the 21st century CMO’s ascendancy in corporate management.

Crisis is inevitable

‘The Law of Truly Large Numbers’, first published by Harvard mathematicians Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller more than 25 years ago, states simply that even the most improbable of imagined events are likely to occur, given a “truly large” number of opportunities.

While it would be extremely challenging to determine how many individual buyer engagements occur annually among the Fortune 1000 and their customers, we know that global telecoms process tens of billions of individual payments daily, retailers collectively complete millions of buyer transactions every single hour, and – as will surprise no one – there are some 40 million commercial flights per year.

With that kind of volume of interaction with buyers, you don’t need a mathematics doctorate to work out that a crisis-level PR incident is beyond possible for leading global enterprises. It is inevitable. You will face a reputation crisis – it is merely a matter of when, of what magnitude, and how prepared you’ll be for it.

It’s about trust

In the past, preparedness meant having a clear response strategy and a well-paid PR firm. Today, however, consumer trust in government, business, and media is at historical lows. Hardly a month goes by these days without a politician, entertainer, or media player being exposed in an outrage-worthy scandal of some sort.

Brands fare no better. According to a 2016 investigation by PR firm Edelman, less than half of the global public has faith in corporate CEOs to ‘do the right thing’, believing instead in news (real or fake) shared online by peers.

What’s important for brands to understand about this new kind of buyer outlook is that it is fundamentally political in nature. The tradeoff for allowing brands to become part of the fabric of our daily lives is that business no longer operates in the neutral world of commoditised goods and services. Instead, customers expect your brand to stand for something that they themselves believe in. “When we buy what you are selling,” they might say. “You had better walk the talk.”

That walk requires you to go further – starting by taking a good hard look at your constituents, your brand values, and your company culture, and then aligning management, messaging, and training accordingly.

Your brand actually matters to your buyers

If you want to preserve the conditional trust that buyers extend with their wallets, you need to decide what your brand stands for and be true to that in every aspect of your organisation. As its CMO, your organisation needs you to:

· Clearly affirm your brand’s purpose and values: You can’t opt out of this. You can’t fake authenticity. Buyers can smell insincerity and view attacking a brand that has violated their trust as fair turnabout if they have felt exploited and powerless.
· Identify all constituents of your brand’s audience: Engage with them. Listen to them. Identify the brand loyalists and influencers who will stand up for you when you need it most and provide them with a voice and talking points.

Awareness and understanding between brand and buyers are two-way streets and take time. That means starting now, before a crisis arrives.

Your organisation probably needs to adapt

It is not only your biggest fans who matter. You must also consider your potential detractors and areas of weakness, and decide – in advance – how you can mitigate the risks. This could require driving painful changes in your organisation’s culture.

In the digital age, brand promise takes on new significance, and operational policies or staff training that do not live up to buyers’ expectations are liabilities. As keeper of the brand and a member of senior management, you are probably the only individual able to truly tackle this challenge. Therefore, CMOs must also:

· Align senior leadership, including the CEO and the board, on the new approach: We all like to think that we know a bit more than we actually do, so this may be a challenge. But it is imperative to the future of your organisation that all senior leadership get fully on board with the importance of operational policies consistently reflecting brand values.
· Prepare for the coming crisis: You can prepare by establishing talking points, getting facts and figures straight, selecting spokespeople and contact points, and then pushing this message out at every level of the organisation. When the crisis hits, you must be prepared to respond – in minutes or hours, not in days – with humility and clarity.

The stakes are higher than you think

A strong relationship with all stakeholders is the key ingredient for global brands to grow and thrive in the 21st century – especially with opinionated and social-media-savvy Millennials now representing America’s largest population demographic and ever-gaining in purchasing power.

Determining how the brand interacts with buyers is something that must be done not just in corporate communications, but in every department of your organisation. The 21st century CMO is in a position to bring together all senior leadership to decide what values the brand will represent for the next decade.

The world is watching, and you have but one chance to get this right. Wait until the crisis has arrived to rally the troops, and you will fail. In this age of digital wildfires, it’s critical for marketing to protect the brand and to protect customer relationships not just by planning well, but by changing the company culture.

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