What brands can learn from Taylor Swift’s reputational crisis

Last week provided an example of one of the most unexpected reputational crises of 2016: the unmasking of pop star Taylor Swift as a person behind the product which, says Soraya Calavassy, provided relevant lessons for brands on how to cope with challenges to their story.

The public feud between Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian has branded Swift a liar and master manipulator. As a result, her carefully cultivated good girl image was shed in the blink of an eye, or a series of 10 second Snapchat posts.

Swift and her ‘Squad’ proceeded to very publicly speak out against West’s song to the media and on their own social channels. The drama culminated at the Grammy Awards where, in her acceptance speech, Swift implied West was trying to take credit for her success.

In defence of her husband, Kardashian released a series of damning videos to her Snapchat account showing a conversation between West and Swift.

Not only does Swift consent to the line in the song: she also voices her appreciation of being asked for approval.


Swift’s response to this very public slandering was fiercely anticipated. For communications professionals and brands alike there’s a lesson to be learned from Team Swift when it comes to the management of reputational crisis.

Assemble your team and react quickly

One can only assume that within seconds of Kardashian pressing ‘My Story’ and ‘SEND’ members of Swift’s team were on high alert for the media storm that would follow.

Making headlines within minutes, Swift and her team of experts did what any communications professional would do in this situation: sit down, assess the impact for Swift and her future, and devise a strategy.

Time is of the essence when it comes to crisis communications, and even though this story broke at 10:00pm Pacific Time on a Sunday Swift’s team were able to take stock, strategise and respond to the situation within hours.

This quick action worked to limit risk and allowed them to have input before the world and media could spend too long speculating and drawing their own conclusions on the situation.

Kim Kardashian Twitter Taylor Swift

Own your channels and your response
Swift has the ability to broadcast to millions of people with the click of a button via her database, social platforms and profiles. While the world waited with bated breath for a response from Swift, she and her team chose to release the same carefully crafted message across her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Having full control of these channels allowed Swift and her team to own the message. Her overarching response to the situation (specifically mentioning Kardashian and West) was read and quoted in its entirety by media and also gave her dedicated fan base the opportunity to visit each of these channels and see her response firsthand.

While your brand might not have the same volume of followers and media probably won’t be visiting your social pages looking for content in the same way as Swift’s, there’s still something to be learnt from this experience.

Brands have the ability to be selective about who they choose to speak with, and when they choose to share their response during a crisis. Using experts to manage media, determine the best outlets to speak with who will share a balanced view of the story and who will be able to  monitor interviews and control the message will provide the best result for your brand and could be the saving grace of your reputation.

Owning this response by sharing a complete statement on your own channels and referring media and consumers back to this is also a way to ensure your words don’t get twisted and can be used as a reference point for both consumers and media.

Don’t get hung up on, or caught out on, a technicality
One of the hardest types of crises to come back from are those that impact reputation. Product issues can be solved, people can find ways to forgive design flaws, distribution issues and even illness as a result of a product.

However, misleading the public and appearing openly deceptive can be kryptonite for any brand and there is no quick fix for this.

Swift’s lie caused a problem for her team: do they opt to take ownership and act with integrity, or try focus on a technicality to ease the blow?

In this instance Swift’s team attempted to run with option two, noting in her official response that West had not requested approval for one specific line in his song which Swift took offense to, despite video footage of her agreeing with other components of the song.

This is where the crisis has been mismanaged by Swift. Already people had lost faith and trust in Swift, and already she had been publicly branded a liar. In any crisis, consumers value when brands recognise their faults and communicate honestly.

Swift’s refusal to take any ownership in the situation and her attempts to position herself as a victim of Kardashian and West have injected more tension and created backlash from even the most dedicated of fans.

It’s pretty simple: don’t try to divert attention from your own crisis by slamming individuals, competitors or other parties involved.

In the 12 hours following this initial news breaking, a series of stories were placed in media outlets (assumed to be by Swift’s team), indicating Swift had intentions of suing West and Kardashian over the legality of the phone call recordings and introducing the spectre of defamation to the scenario.

This public declaration of legal action from Swift has highlighted her guilt in this situation. It’s also helped fuel the fire, build the story and has continued to paint a negative picture of Swift in the eyes of her fans and media worldwide.

One of the most important things an individual or a brand can do when in the midst of a crisis is behave ethically, act with integrity and ride out the storm. Ceasing to do this and pinning blame elsewhere can more harm than good for a brand and its reputation.

West’s music video for ‘Famous’ even featured a Swift look-alike.

Can she really ‘Shake it Off’?   

We all know that every media story has a lifespan and as long as you stop adding fuel to the fire, it will more or less disappear. In the case of Swift, it’s not quite the same.

The 26-year-old has had her fair share of negative publicity over the years and many stories have been continually resurrected no matter how big her achievements, hits and accolades. It must also be mentioned there is nothing in her past that rivals this level of personal backlash.

While we can only assume Taylor’s crisis will blow over eventually and her talent will allow her to continue to build her own success and increase her profile, this experience is an important lesson for communications professionals and marketers.

Firstly, no matter how big your brand and the number of consumer advocates you have, there’s always the chance the public will turn.

It doesn’t take much for people to lose faith, loyalty and change their opinion of something they have been fans of for years.

Should this happen, for any brand, business or identity in the midst of a crisis, it’s important to remember that it’s not always the crisis itself but how it’s managed that sticks in the mind of media and the public.

No matter the size or type of crisis, the impact to others, and the impact to your reputation, you can always come back from the negative backlash.

Provided you meticulously manage your message, respond quickly, take ownership and act ethically, your reputation can always be rebuilt and your brand can recover, make a comeback and regain consumer trust and sentiment.

Soraya Calavassy is co-founder of Neon Black, a PR and creative communications agency


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