Your brand’s biggest PR risk is its public face

Recently, the founders of Away, the trendy luggage company, and Crossfit, the gym with a cult-like following, were the reason those brands' reputations were compromised. Joan Westenberg explains why a company's biggest PR risk is its public face. What tweets have they sent? And what do they plan to say on Instagram Stories?

Correction: A previous version of this opinion piece incorrectly referenced another fitness brand in place of Crossfit. Mumbrella unreservedly apologises, and has corrected the piece.

More and more, we’re seeing companies’ reputations destroyed by their leadership speaking out in an unofficial capacity and derailing their brands.

Steph Korey, founder of direct to consumer travel and luggage startup Away, stepped down recently for the second time after scandals broke in early 2019 surrounding her company’s emotional abuse of its employees.

This second resignation was the result of a public backlash based on her own social media commentary, shared largely through Instagram and consisting of vicious personal attacks on journalists and a spiralling campaign of vilification.

The backlash was severe because she showed a degree of vehemence that many found disturbing – and the backlash reflected onto the company itself. The brand has been tainted twice now by its CEO and her own words, and Away is now synonymous with those conflicts. Watching it happen has meant watching the decimation of a once beloved brand that will now struggle to regain its fanbase’s trust and confidence.

It’s a similar situation to that of Crossfit gyms. The company’s founder Greg Glassman took to social media to attack and mock the Black Lives Matter movement and was rightfully called out for content that was racist, insensitive and offensive – throwing the entire company and its franchisees into disorder and uncertainty. While Crossfit had achieved almost cult-like popularity amongst its adherents, Glassman’s ill conceived attacks have left many asking if the brand can even continue to exist.

Away’s brand reputation has been severely impacted by the behaviour of its chief executive

This is all evidence of one startling fact. The biggest vulnerability in your brand is your most recognisable public face. Who is the name that comes up when people talk about your company? Who is synonymous with it? What did they tweet five years ago that could derail every single goal you have? What will they post on Instagram tonight that you’ll wake up to as a crisis tomorrow morning?

Your customers are no longer a passive audience. They’re vocal, persistent and loud enough to make sure they’re heard. That’s a good thing. It means they’re more engaged, more socially conscious and more likely to care about people who can demonstrate authenticity and real heart.

We are living through a time when public sentiment is more vocal and more volatile than ever before. And yes, every single founder, executive and leader is in danger of it. While we know that individuals don’t represent entire organisations in every word they write or say or even think – we also know that their values do, and that the sentiments they express, even in private, are an example of how those values interact with the world that they shape.

It’s becoming clear that when a brand focuses on PR, a key part of that is going to be putting in place a plan to manage the brand’s public persona, and content produced in a personal capacity by the leadership team. It has to include monitoring, responding, vetting and even vetoing certain posts, and as a strategy it has to carry a certain weight.

It’s the only way to protect a brand against the worst impulses of the individual representing it – an individual who is only human, and ought to be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they see fit, but an individual who is still responsible for the perception of a company.

I remember one of my first gigs in PR was working with a tech company, long gone now, whose CEO would often go on a late night Twitter rant or two. This was around a decade ago, in the earlier days of the platform, and nothing garnered quite the reaction that it would today. But I can still recall being woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night by the director of communications, giving me the CEO’s logins and asking me to delete five tweets containing confidential gossip about a competitor that had the potential to derail everything.

I took that call, and I’ve been taking them ever since – and as more founders and CEOs take part in public discourse, I have a feeling they won’t be going away.

Joan Westenberg is founder of PR and advertising agency Studio Self


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