The Rise of Brand Narcissism

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Pepsi – and now United – are the latest example of brands exhibiting evidence of spending too much time admiring their reflection in the mirror while the societal and political climate is changing rapidly outside their doors.

‘Tone deaf’ and ‘out-of-touch’ – two terms that are now synonymous with both brands with United quickly becoming a global textbook case.

United and Pepsi are not alone – Uber, Google, YouTube – powerhouse brands that have been forced to take the blinders off and face the new reality of growing business and consumer impatience and purchasing power action.

Most of it directly correlates to company culture – when leaders and employees together perceive their brand from 1.) their vision of the organization, 2.) negate alternative realities to that vision, 3.) ignore public/consumer feedback and 4.) remain out-of-touch with rapidly changing scenarios within markets.

Communications and public relations teams can help put a stop to brand narcissism by taking the lead on bringing the public and alternative views into sharp focus internally.

Benchmark, continually. Benchmark perception on a regular basis, every quarter or twice a year. Hire an independent research firm to conduct the benchmark analysis and to present findings to yourself and your leadership team. Try to avoid a defensive reaction to the feedback and take time to assess the findings before reacting.

Pay attention to digital. Keep an eye on your sentiment analysis data and read what is being shared and said about your brand on a regular basis. Share those reports with your leadership team in your meetings (don’t just email the report, present it and explain it).

Don’t forget media. Deep dive on your brand in the media daily both on social and on the web. Who is covering you on a regular basis? Who is citing you as a source or your data/research as a source? Read article comments over time. Provide staff with weekly updates on media coverage, encourage them to read and interact with the comments.

Educate leadership. Often times, brand narcissism starts from the top and is a reflection of leadership style. Invite specialists to come and speak to your company/team about changes in your industry, changes in customer behavior, innovation in the workplace. HR can be a trusted partner in helping to provide online courses and information on a regular basis to prevent ‘group think’ from taking hold.

Last, but not least, conduct scenario analysis. Stay informed of what is happening in the news, what is trending in society, politics and culture and how overall public sentiment is evolving. “If you see something, say something”, applies here.

New Year, New Crisis Plan

When was the last time you reviewed your crisis response plan?

Whether they would admit or not, many organizations either do not have a crisis response plan or have one that is barely, if ever, reviewed. In the changing political and global context of today, having a dynamic crisis response plan that aligns with your business and is integrated across channels is critical to your operations.

In my experience, crises have a higher tendency to occur as a result of actions taken by an organization or in response to their mission or philosophy. You may, without realizing it, trigger a crisis by your actions – the releasing of a statement, a comment, a change in direction, an exit from a country, an issue with a program, funding, etc.

Rule number one with a crisis is that it will be incredibly fast-moving and will involve both digital and traditional media. Rule number two is that the issue that becomes a crisis will shock you – it will not be what you expect. Rule number three is that the press will seek comment from anyone with a relationship with the organization, past and present.

Some important tips:

  • Ensure senior leadership is committed and involved in the development of your plan (or updating your existing plan) and is actively engaged in live drills across the organization at least twice a year.
  • Be ready to respond and take control of the message with prepared spokespeople – not associated with the organization – who can speak on your behalf and to have supporters counter accusations on digital or start counter campaigns if needed.
  • Respond quickly – do not sit on the issue or bury your head in the sand – the longer you wait to respond, the more intense the crisis will become. Publicly provide action steps that you plan to take, the timeline in which you will take them and keep apologies short, and only apologize once.
  • Avoid becoming social shy – several recent crises showed that organizations and individuals tend to avoid digital when the heat is turned up, locking comments or maintaining scheduled posts throughout. You cannot – no matter how negative the comments or the campaigns or the memes – avoid your digital platforms.
  • Monitor digital, emails and calls so that any press that contact you are directed to the media team taking charge of vetting incoming calls and one spokesperson who had previously been trained and selected as the crisis spokesperson.
  • Stick with your talking points each time your spokesperson is interviewed to ensure that they are consistent with the facts. If an error has been made, admit it and state the necessary steps to ensure it will not happen again in the future – and make those steps publicly known.

The more visible you are, the more others may try to use your visibility for their own objectives and to advance their own agendas – for both positive and negative reasons. Recognizing the power of the collective and engaging with it will enable your brand to stay flexible and aware of changing trends and sentiments. But being prepared, and ensuring your leadership is prepared, is your ultimate strategy.

 

When Apologies Backfire

What do architects and supermodels have in common?

Beyond being generally approved of by the general public, they were the first to experience reputation damage in the wake of a growing, global culture shift.

The day after the US presidential election, The American Institute of Architects released a statement expressing their willingness to work with the Trump Administration. For the AIA, it was business as usual – a statement that is always released after a presidential election.

The groundswell was immediate and vocal, leading to the launch of the #notmyaia digital movement with members voicing long-term concerns that the Institute had been tone deaf. The AIA released an apology two days later but it did little to stem the tide. Four days later, they followed up with a second video apology that fed the media storm further, and finally a third apology to their members that went public.

Several days later, supermodel Gigi Hadid hosted the American Music Awards. In her opening monologue, she mimicked the future First Lady, Melania Trump – the backlash was sudden and even more vocal, forcing herself and her mother to lock down social comments.

In reaction, the supermodel released a hand-written apology letter through her father’s Instagram account. The apology letter received more criticism as it failed to apologize directly to Mrs. Trump.

In both cases, the apologies created more problems than they solved, why? Here are three guidelines when considering whether to/to not apologize after a crisis you caused:

  • Is it warranted? This will take some hard thinking internally to determine whether your actions align with your mission or business philosophy. Is it a market over reaction? Will time be beneficial to you and your brand? Don’t immediately issue an apology until you have assessed the context completely.  Shoot from the hip apologies don’t work.

 

  • Is it sincere? If you are going to apologize, you must really want to and it must really show. This is where acting will fail you. Audiences are smart, people are smart, they will see right through the veneer which will further inflame the situation. Only apologize if you truly mean it and you are comfortable doing so.

 

  • Is it owned? Will your key audiences agree with your apology – the approach and the content? Have you checked in with them? This could be loyal customers, partners, investors, Boards, and employees. If not, they could turn against you under the pressure of a growing call for action.

A Global Social Media Lesson from Disney

Walt Disney Japan has had a rough day on social.

The latest was an unfortunate tweet sent on the 70th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing which translated to “congratulations on a not special day”.

How can you avoid tweet trouble on Twitter or for that matter, how can you ensure your global brand channels are engaged with local culture and customs in your key markets?

Hire for local context. Ensure your social media talent is well versed in the culture and customs of the country for the channels they are managing – either by hiring locally if you have a decentralized structure or hiring someone with work experience in that country.

Establish clear goals. Understand what business goals you are trying to achieve with your channels in each of your markets and how that ties into your content, campaigns and promotions.

Understand your audience. Do the research by developing personas to determine your audience given your business goals. Determine how and where your audience engages on social and how often. Plan to keep your engagement with them at their preferred level, not at your brand’s comfort level. Make note of important holidays and dates within the country in your editorial calendar.

Educate on brand values. It is essential that your social staff understand your brand values, your positioning and your overall strategy so that they can develop and manage content that aligns with your overall image. It also helps to prevent any “going rogue” scenarios. Educate continually, not just once.

Develop and train on protocols. Create protocols and crisis plans for your social channels with your social team to ensure it is clear and that there are response plans in place that will minimize any reputational damage.

The Lion That Roared

By now, we all know the fate of Cecil the lion and the Internet firestorm that followed. As The Guardian put it last week: “Nous sommes Cecil”.

The one quote that stood out from the many hundreds over the past week was from Zimbabwe’s Acting Minister of Information when asked about Cecil. Her response, “What lion?” And press reports confirmed that not all Zimbabweans were familiar with Cecil.

The meaning of her words were quickly interpreted by the Western press – many of whom took the comment as a callous remark or an affront.

In public relations terms, the story was getting out ahead of her fast. And just like in a road race you want to close that gap as soon as possible and overtake the story if you can.

So what was missing?

Context. It was an education moment if there ever was one. Zimbabwe has been wrestling with serious economic issues – conditions that most in the West could not believe or relate to. Passion overtook the reality of Zimbabwe’s economic conditions which if you peel back the layers of this onion, was a significant, long-term contributor to Cecil’s demise.

Understanding the near immediate, seismic shift in publicity. In many ways the Government of Zimbabwe has been handed a global platform to highlight the disparity between the reality of every day Zimbabweans and the Zimbabwe of those who visit or experience through images and documentaries about their wildlife.

Transforming that platform. An opportunity still exists for the Information Minister to get her message out by telling the story of Zimbabwe through everyday Zimbabweans and their vision for the future. And to make the country a global cause for the West to get behind – for the sake of Cecil’s cubs and other lions – and for the people of Zimbabwe.