THE world we live in is increasingly characterised by information overload. Media platforms, especially digital media ones, have proliferated to the point where one needs more than a person’s fingers and toes combined to count them.

It is also a world of summaries. Suffering from short attention spans, people prefer to read shorter news articles – with Twitter dominating this space – and quickly form opinions about issues with scant attention to the need to verify facts.brand_image_02

Opinions and gossip shared through new media platforms are read quickly and shared even faster; usually because the reader is immediately impressed in one way or another by what they’ve just read, or because they want to send it out there for corroboration by any one of the multitudes of e-friends they have never met in person and probably never will. These platforms also give anonymous power to the small guy who feels fulfilled by a small act of mob justice.

In dispatching the news, gossip view or opinion, they could, in one small act, be spreading unverified news. One commentator accurately described the use of Twitter as communicating 140 characters of distilled rage. The piece of information shared could be true, only partly true, or a total fabrication by naïve, ill-informed, or malicious originators.

But the sender will only know its veracity much later and, if found to be untrue, not even bother to apologise for having spread lies. They simply erase it from their social media page and short memory – if they remember – and move on to the next piece of random juicy news. Laws governing freedom of expression allow a wide scope of manoeuver for people to get away with this.

This is not so for brands, who, on the other hand, have to be very careful how they respond – or not – to what gets said about them. The world is not as readily kind to them as it is to purveyors of random electronic information.

Brand peputation hinges on speed of response

All brands, because they always stand a chance of finding themselves at the centre of such fabricated anecdotes, have to have eyes trolling digital platforms at all times. Their reputation often relies on the speed with which they respond to whatever is said about them: true, fabricated, or exaggerated.

It also relies on the manner of their response. There are many examples of brands who missed this crucial advice in recent years, either responding too late or not responding at all, leaving negative conversations to determine what they get to be remembered for. Others, like Telkom in 2005 and, most recently Cell C, choose to go the aggressive legal route – often to their detriment – hoping to fight legitimate customer expression of unhappiness through the courts, and forgetting the provisions of Article 16 of our constitution.

Brand reputation managers must learn to distinguish between legitimate customer criticism and malicious abuse of their trade marks for profit. SABMiller [JSE:SAB] won its 2005 court case against Laugh It Off Productions (LIO) because it was able to convince the court that LIO used the disputed logo to make money. Social media agitators, who are largely anti-establishment, usually target larger reputable companies, drawing more attention to their cause in the process.

Smart corporate reputation management must be 80% proactive and only 20% reactive; this means that brands have to spend time planting positive seeds to positively influence the tone of all conversations about them even before those conversations begin. Those who fail to do this often find themselves on the back foot – the last place any brand wants to find itself – reduced to first having to repeatedly explain their past action or inaction whenever they try to open new conversations about the good things they do.

We saw this a few years ago when Woolworths [JSE:WHL] – taken by surprise – took too long to explain a decision to introduce new soft drink brands on its shelves. While it has not quite recovered from accusations that it acted as a Goliath bullying a small entrepreneur in that case, the retailer has since learned much from the experience and is now, arguably, one of the most invested in protecting and enhancing its corporate reputation.

We watch with keen interest how it manages its latest battle against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and the National Coalition for Palestine.

In this reputation economy, brands can no longer rely on their legal teams alone to protect them from the harsh world of empowered stakeholders. They have to carefully choose their battles, knowing when to use the stick and when to go on the charm offensive. In cases where they are found wanting, they shouldn’t be shy to acknowledge fault and fully apologise for mistakes; something Cell C had ample opportunity to do but failed dismally.

Self-respecting brands must insist on a separation of powers between their legal team and a seasoned corporate reputation team, but ensure that the two teams work together. There are certain nuances in dealing with media and reputation legal advisers seldom understand.

Good, strong, values serve as natural armour against attacks. Companies with such an armour tend to be more resilient in a crisis. It is, ultimately, much easier to defend good values than the facts. This is something Cell C should learn. One hopes that while it finishes licking its wounds, Cell C will start investing in a better reputation management regime.