Posted on | June 23, 2011 | No Comments
The Beast of social media cares about reputation. Every word and action on-line can be found by the Beast and will either help or hurt your brand off-line. Just as it has always been, a good reputation is instrumental to success, while a negative reputation can end careers, destroy companies and marginalize missions. As easy and fun as it may be to participate in social media, it is not a toy. Everything counts.
Despite the allure of anonymous communication promised by the Internet in years past, the rise of social media has also meant an increase in transparency and accountability. It has become far more difficult to hide. As Brian Stelter wrote in the New York Times recently, (Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Masks Everyone) anonymity is becoming scarce. The world of the Internet is a public world where everything you say and do can be revealed, archived and searched by two billion Internet users around the world. Just like the much smaller pre-electronic media world of a hundred years ago, anything you do or say is likely to be observed and remembered by others. And just like an earlier time, it is becoming far more difficult to falsify or manipulate a reputation. Everyone can now see and hear you, and everyone can form their opinions of you constantly.
The loss of anonymity goes beyond the Internet, now that every telephone is a camera and every Internet user can post every detail of life around them, non-Internet behavior is also very difficult to keep secret. Examples in recent years abound of individuals identified and caught by social media’s near omniscience. Bank robbers have been caught through Facebook. Political corruption and police abuse has repeatedly been exposed on-line. Unfortunately, repressive regimes have also discovered the power of the Internet to reveal others, and have used the Internet and social media to track activists. At the same time, an embarrassing photo taken at a party, or angry and hurtful words texted by teenagers can have painful repercussions for years to come.
We are all in the public eye now, and have to adjust accordingly.
As disturbing as this seems, and as difficult as it is for all of us to adjust to this new reality of less privacy, less anonymity and less control, there is much to gain in this new environment as well. In a world where actions and words are les often anonymous, personal responsibility becomes more common. It’s no longer optional; everyone is required now to own what they do and say, and everyone has to learn to be more circumscribed about their actions. Everything said or done has consequence.
Since everything is public, it’s time for everyone to actively manage their reputation, just as public companies have had to manage their brand. But how is that done? How can someone build and control a brand with the Beast?
First, it may make sense to clarify what a brand is. Over the last 100 years or so, a kind of religious faith emerged in business which I call the cult of Branding. Adherents to this faith believe that a brilliant logo, a compelling slogan, fabulous advertising and just the right name builds growth, margin and customer loyalty. But does the “branding” create a brand? Or is it something else?
The priests of the “branding” faith, (also known as brand consultants, advertising executives and Chief Marketing Officers) frequently point to successful companies possessing powerful brands that are valued or even loved by millions of people all over the world. The “priests” promise that the look and feel of a name and logo, a certain color, or a certain design template, a slogan, advertising or a set of talking points, is what builds brand.
And so, the faithful go to these priests of branding – they give them dollars and time, they allow the priests to prod and poke their employees and customers – and then they change their signs, their slogans, their bullet points, brochures, advertisements and business cards.
And then, the priests declare the greatness of the new branding, and this is confirmed by the focus group testimonials, and perhaps even by awards from other priests. But the question often remains, does all the “branding” actually create a strong brand? Sometimes the share price climbs a bit, for many investors adhere to the branding faith, but that bump in price diminishes as soon as expectations aren’t matched by actual results. Sometimes employees with branding faith will swell with pride at their new and improved logo, but that diminishes over time as the realities of their work set in. Sometimes a customer or two, curious about all the new words and pictures, will inquire, but unless there’s something substantive to back up the changes in words, the customers lose interest as well.
I would submit that brand isn’t created by “branding”; instead it’s created by behavior and actual, genuine, thoughtful honest and meaningful communication. The more someone speaks and behaves in public in a certain way, the better and more valuable a brand becomes over time. This is not something that can be rushed or faked. Real brand comes from real behavior, real experiences and real communication.
For example, in 1982 when someone sabotaged several bottles of Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol painkillers with cyanide, causing the death of 7 people, there was a clear decision made in public that built their brand for years to come. Other companies may have initially tried to minimize the problem, as British Petroleum infamously did during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, by blaming others, putting a positive spin on the problem, or generally not claiming responsibility. Johnson & Johnson, after all, was not really at fault for the cyanide poisoning, and might be justified in telling the world that it wasn’t their problem.
Instead, Johnson & Johnson took full responsibility, recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves and offered free replacement tablets to anyone who had bottles of Tylenol. It was expensive and difficult to do, (over $100 million) but it was strongly aligned with a brand identity the company had worked on for over 100 years. They made a conscious decision to put their reputation before other considerations. As a consequence, they regained most of their market share within a year of the disaster and continued to grow as a successful company ever since. More than any advertisement or spin of events, their actual words and actions helped to build a strong reputation that continues to grow with their customers around the world. As a contrast, does anyone believe that BP is more concerned about the environment or worker safety after the $93.4 million of advertising (3 times what they spent in that period a year earlier) during the oil spill months of April through July of 2010?
Just as BP can’t hide behind their advertising, individuals can’t hide behind anonymity. It’s far more effective to consciously build a reputation through considered words and actions, just as Johnson & Johnson so expertly did in 1982. Practically, that means that every word or action on-line will either improve or diminish a reputation, and must be treated accordingly. Before posting a brilliant comment on Twitter, or uploading a photo, or sending a text to a friend the following basic question must be asked:
“If this were published on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow, would I want my name or my company’s name connected to it?”
It’s a simple test, but the implications are very powerful. Intuitively, everyone understands what fits or doesn’t fit with their desired reputation, and the understanding that your words and actions are potentially extremely public has a tendency to clarify and focus thinking. If the world is watching, and unlikely to forget what you do – how will you behave?