Weathering social media storms begins with knowing your brand inside out

A business’ online reputation can be tarnished with a single tweet. How do you pour cold water on potentially crippling negative comments without tying yourself - and your business - in knots? Dr Neryl East has the answer.

Flight Centre is back in the news, with a disgruntled traveller describing their lowest airfare guarantee as “a consumer rort”. He complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about misleading behaviour, after Flight Centre reportedly tried to charge him an extra $49 to honour its “beat any airfare quote by $1” guarantee.

Flight centre has been in hot water recently

While this issue is now in the ACCC’s hands, it’s a reminder to always consider what your brand truly stands for, when deciding whether a potential issue warrants your full attention or can go through to the keeper.

Harvard University Professor Stephen Greyser describes the “essence of the brand” as the distinctive attribute or characteristic most closely associated with the brand’s meaning and success (see research paper). It’s that one thing that comes to mind when people picture your logo or hear the brand’s name.

In Flight Centre’s case, their long running campaign of “lowest airfare guaranteed” means they’re synonymous with trying to get you the best deal. If the experience of the punters doesn’t match that promise, you don’t need to be Einstein to work out that trouble will brew.

This applies even though Flight Centre has moved to the “the best in the air and everywhere” tagline in their advertising. They remain strongly associated with their heritage brand of rock-bottom fares (and indeed still refer to the lowest airfare guarantee in their material) and will continue to pay the price if their offering doesn’t align with that.

Any organisation – whether business, government or not-for-profit – needs a crystal-clear picture of its brand essence. That way, when niggling comments appear online or issues spring up elsewhere, you can quickly evaluate whether you’re dealing with a minor ripple or a tsunami.

Does the issue touch directly on the essence of your brand? If it’s a yes, pull out all stops and address the situation pronto as it’s a direct attack on your credibility. If no, it’s still important and needs attention, but is less likely to be a show-stopper for your business.

Game of Thrones fans saw this in action with Foxtel’s technical meltdown that got in the way of the streaming of the new season’s first episode. Subscribers to a streaming service might grudgingly accept price rises and other non-service issues, but disrupt viewing of their favourite show and all hell will break loose.

Foxtel’s recent PR problem came during the Game of Thrones premiere

Foxtel’s emotive responses – including telling viewers they were “devastated” by the glitch – showed they at least recognised the serious risk to their credibility and the potential breakdown in trust with their audience. And well they should have. The essence of their brand had been compromised.

Back in 2013, social media app Buffer demonstrated they understood the brand essence concept when they fell victim to a security breach that meant thousands of their clients’ accounts posted spam messages to Facebook.

In that case, the Bufferites quickly recognised the potentially catastrophic threat to the essence of their brand and rolled out textbook crisis management actions.

Once credibility has been dented, it can be a long road back to a rebuilt reputation.

As Professor Greyser points out, any new campaign involving an embattled brand has to pass through a filter of credibility.

Next time you’re putting your brand out there, it pays to ask whether you are 100% clear about that brand’s essence. And the next question should be: Do the organisation’s words and behaviours align with that essence completely?

If those answers aren’t clear, it might be time to prepare for a social media storm.

Dr Neryl East has over 30 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, crisis and governance communications


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