In early 2013, I consulted with a local celebrity embroiled in an attack on her reputation. The celebrity was accused of certain wrong doings and the resulting uproar took on a life of its own where both traditional and social media took aim at her. A Facebook page urging netizens to denounce her was even set-up garnering more than 20,000 likes in a matter of weeks. In the ensuing intense media pressure, the celebrity withdrew completely from the public eye and made no attempts to defend herself. Suffice to say, her silence allowed her detractors free reign and all accusations went unchallenged and was taken by the public to be the truth. The loss of income was both immediate, and long-lasting, as sponsorships were withdrawn and new deals have not been forthcoming.
The above example illustrates the growing power of social media in shaping public opinion in Singapore and its potential impact on a company’s brand value. Given social media’s lack of objectivity (i.e. anyone with a computer and internet connection can post contents with virtual impunity) companies are inherently vulnerable to concerted consumer attacks for alleged misconduct, or malicious attacks by disgruntled consumers. The question thus is not if your company will be attacked, but when.
In handling an attack on a company’s brand or reputation, the most important decision is the desired outcome. This is important as a clear understanding of the desired outcome will determine the “correct” communications approach to take. To illustrate, allow me to use the celebrity client’s case as an example. When the crisis occurred, my client had options along the spectrum of capitalizing on the publicity to increase awareness of her “brand” on one end, or evading publicity with the intent of helping the story to blow over on the other. Each outcome would entail considerably different approaches to achieve the desired outcome.
If the client had chosen the former, we would have gone on the offensive as publicity in any form is good for a celebrity. The key consideration in this approach would be to position her appropriately and that would entail publicly responding to accusations, offering her own explanations and proactively seeking her fans support. In this instance, The New Paper, The Straits Times and several local magazines had wanted to interview her for her side of the story. A back of a napkin calculation showed that the combined coverage would amount to literally tens of thousands of dollars of “advertising.” Thus, if the client had wanted to stay as a celebrity, this was a windfall which we could capitalize on to increase her brand value.
On the other hand, if the incident had soured the client’s taste for the public eye and she wanted to leave the limelight, then the approach would be an “active defence”. Here the approach would be to “trade” brand value for time by selectively responding to accusations. The key consideration in this approach is to minimize additional publicity so as to allow the incident to fade from public interest. Indirect or third-party responses to the most damaging accusations are necessary so as to protect the client’s reputation as she fades from the public eye. This will pave a way for a subsequent return to the public eye in time should the opportunity arise.
As the case study illustrates, when a crisis occurs, the affected company has a range of outcomes they can consider. And depending on the desired outcome, the approach can vary significantly. A clearly articulated outcome would align the efforts of the crisis communications team and enable them to develop and execute the “correct” strategy. Thus knowing your desired outcome is the cardinal rule of reputation management.