THERE comes a time in the life of corporate and other brands when their own voices and carefully-worded media statements are insufficient to protect them from attacks by “brandivists” (brand activists), sociopolitical pressure groups and other market forces.
In some cases, bad conduct in the past might have eroded public confidence in the brand, forcing stakeholders to shift from an automatic position of unquestioning trust to one where the brand is presumed guilty until proven innocent.
In other cases, the onslaught could also happen in a climate where a high-profile brand is deliberately picked for opportunistic media generation purposes when, in fact, other brands in its category could have served the same purpose.
Attacks on corporate reputation can also result from market or political dynamics over which the brand has little or no control. But – whether justifiable or not – there are always tools to protect the brand.
When under attack, especially in situations where the corporate in question has nothing to hide, outside assistance might be a better tool to rely on to resist the onslaught, turn negative perceptions around, and regain lost credibility.
Enter the influencers
Forward-thinking corporate reputation managers understand the importance of cultivating strategic friendships with respected, credible opinion makers and thought leaders in relevant fields.
Such strategic friends may be obvious sector specialists, the media, government representatives, trade union representatives, or known individuals whose opinions on a range of topics always get taken seriously and easily gain rapid and positive digital media traction.
Carefully chosen individuals, who are ordinary consumers of the company’s goods and services, should also be added to the broad influencer list, as their voices of support in time of need can go a long way towards saving a corporate’s besieged reputation.
Once carefully identified, potential influencers have to be guaranteed easy access to the company, sometimes even afforded earlier access to planned strategic moves and invited to provide their views on a range of topics, and to attend relevant company events.
However, care should be taken, especially in the case of media practitioners and government representatives, to avoid giving the impression that these influencers are in the pocket of the corporate. Influencers are never paid or given undue material rewards, as this might erode their credibility to speak as independent observers when the time comes.
In fact, often they do not even know that they’ve been added to a list of influencers by the company, as their intervention during serious issues or crisis management is never scripted. The trick is to keep them informed of company developments without appearing to deliberately influence their thinking.
The knowledge they garner over time, together with their privileged access to company representatives, should enable them to independently speak out in its support when the need arises. They could often come into public debates from the outside because they understand the company’s rationale for having made certain moves.
Uber: a shining example
While it seems unlikely that they will convince government to impose import tariffs against Chinese steel imports to protect their businesses and sector as a whole, companies like ArcelorMittal, Evraz Highveld Steel, Scaw Metals, Hulamin and others were clever to rope in their industry body, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), and the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) to lobby for a more sympathetic ear.
As a result, both Numsa and Seifsa have issued media statements in support of the ailing industry, highlighting the fact that the challenges it faces also affect them, irrespective of company specific operational issues. All of these entities have a vested interest in the survival of the local steel industry.
It is therefore not just the problem of ArcelorMittal and Evraz Highveld’s fight for government protection – many other small businesses that rely on the sector will be closed down and more than 10 000 jobs stand to be lost if nothing changes.
Government cannot afford to see this happen. The issue here is that voices outside the steel making companies concerned have come out in their defence.
We’ve also seen how, a few weeks ago, Uber managed to use thousands of independent voices when it faced an attack from the archaic metered taxi industry. In no time, the public support the company managed to mobilise ensured that operating licences were issued for its driver partners in places like Cape Town.
Woolies earns a thumbs down
In its ever-recurring tug-of-war with the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, Woolworths needs to make better use of alternative voices to support its stance. The retailer has to stop allowing others to portray it as the only South African company presumably breaking the law by importing products from Israel.
It should lobby government to explain its stance on the importation of Israeli products that do not come from occupied Palestinian land. It might also be beneficial for the retailer to open up the debate to the rest of the South African business sector, as it is hardly likely to be the only South African company importing a handful of products from Israel.
Importing goods from Israel, especially if these are clearly labeled as not coming from disputed Palestinian territories – as Woolworths meticulously does – is not against the law. But where are the voices of the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and government on this matter?
Instead of allowing this to be turned into an ideological debate, why not bring independent voices of reason to deal with the matter of whether or not the South African government allows trade with Israel?
Brands with good friends do not have to fight unnecessary battles on their own.