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Marketing and Consumer Behavior

Protecting Brand Reputation in the Digital Age

By Samantha Beavers

Nearly thirteen years ago, United Airlines’ stock price fell 10% after the “United Breaks Guitars” video took over the internet. It was a time when the word “apps” still mostly referred to chicken wings and calamari, Instagram wasn’t a thing and nobody knew what a social media influencer was. Twitter had just celebrated its third birthday. Even with those humble beginnings, though, businesses discovered that social media – while promising – has power to do damage, too.

Now, more than a decade later, social media has gone through a wave of transformation. New platforms and posting options have introduced endless opportunities for organizations to tell their stories, reach new customers, launch creative campaigns and market products.

But with greater reach comes greater risk – and many brands have learned this the hard way. 
According to Bill Rand, associate professor of marketing and executive director of NC State’s Business Analytics Initiative, this is because social media platforms have created a space where particularly negative messages tend to reverberate. His research shows that these messages can cause serious problems for a company’s reputation – especially when the news media catches wind of them. This means that one off-color Tweet can cost an organization thousands of dollars and any unhappy customer with a phone in their back pocket can wreak havoc.

How, in this volatile environment, can brands and businesses protect their reputation and manage their social media risk? Rand chimes in with some best practices. 

Develop protocols for customer service risks

Some of the most common social media risks, Rand says, are customer complaints. To mitigate these, businesses should have well-established customer service response protocols in place. By preparing for all types of customer comments – whether positive, negative or neutral – companies can minimize negative word of mouth, manage their reputation and improve customer care.

Additionally, companies must be able to discern and categorize which comments are urgent and which can wait – and be ready to respond accordingly.

“It’s one thing if someone says they don’t like the way AirPods fit in their ears. It’s another if there are 100 people waiting in line to pick up their cars at a rental car company and someone asks the company what’s going on, right? If the comment is urgent, it requires a more urgent response,” Rand explains.

Also key, he says, is adopting the appropriate tone and communicating over the right channel.

“As much as possible, companies should strive to limit the amount of customers airing their dirty laundry in public. At the customer service level, it is often beneficial to move customers to a more private channel – such as email or direct messaging – rather than addressing the complaint in full on the social media platform,” Rand explains.

“By communicating in this more personal way and adopting the right tone, you can move customers away from this space of highly negative arousal to a space that is more positive and less aroused. And the ultimate goal, of course, is to get customers to that highly positive, highly aroused space where they’re now defending your company rather than attacking it,” he continues.

Plan ahead for brand attacks

In addition to preparing customer service responses for customer complaints, companies also ought to plan for larger-scale brand attacks that occur on social media.

While these can take any number of forms, these attacks typically involve critiques of a company’s business practices – whether that includes a company’s use of slash-and-burn farming techniques or its failure to respond to the war in Ukraine fast enough. 

“It may even be something that happens with one of your business partners,” Rand explains. “There’s very little you can know ahead of time about what the actual content of the crisis is going to be, but you can still develop a plan for it – even if it’s not completely set in stone,” Rand explains.

The most critical part of the process, Rand says, is identifying a few key people – whether representatives from a company’s various organizational units or even external parties – who can serve as crisis handlers. That way, a company is prepared to respond when a crisis surfaces.
And here, too, timing is everything.

“In many ways, responding to brand attacks is an art – not a science. And key to this, I think, is considering how urgent the claims are. Are they urgent enough that customers are going to start boycotting? You need to think wisely about whether or not something is going to blow up or whether the attacks will just go away on their own,” Rand says.

Distinguish trolls, fools and concerned citizens

Companies should also plan ahead for brand attacks by developing different strategies for true claims and false ones. 

And before rising up to defend itself against falsehoods, a company is wise to identify the difference between those who have it out for them and those with genuine concerns.

“If there’s just one person out there making ridiculous claims about your company – like complaining about a chemical that no one in scientific literature is even mentioning – then chances are you should just ignore them and let them continue to rant. This goes back to the adage that you should never argue with a fool, because from a distance, no one can tell the difference,” Rand explains.

“If there’s a mob of fools, though, you’ll have to do something. And if there are a lot of people expressing the same things and it seems to be a genuine interest or consumer concern, then it’s something you’ll need to address – even if the claim is false,” he continues. 
And unlike customer service complaints, these are best addressed publicly.

“In situations like this, moving customers to a private channel can backfire and make it appear as though you’re not taking a public stance. So it’s generally more helpful, in cases like these, to decide what your public stance is and stick to it,” Rand says.

“It’s also important to meet customers on their own level by responding on the same channels where the attacks are occurring. If critiques and concerns continue to pour in on your Instagram account, then addressing these issues in a press release may not be the most helpful response,” he continues.

Know your customers and your values

Another reputational risk, especially in light of a rapidly rising cancel culture, is navigating various social, political and ethical issues.

Though many companies prefer to steer clear of such issues, there is increasing pressure for corporations to speak out and offer public stances – and in a highly politicized world, trying to please everyone rarely works. In fact, when companies try to remain lukewarm, it often leads to an outcry from the consumer base.

To mitigate these risks, Rand offers two suggestions.

“Whatever statements you put out there should be aligned with your company’s corporate values. Patagonia does a fantastic job with this. They make these decisions almost instantaneously and they’re unwavering in them – and it’s because they have a very strong corporate value system. So know your values and stay true to them,” Rand says.

“The other thing that can be useful is to embrace having the consumer base hold you accountable. If your consumers feel strongly about an issue and lead you in a certain direction, it can be helpful to follow them that way,” he continues.

Part of that, Rand explains, is listening to what users are saying on social media while also recognizing that they may not represent a company’s consumer base.

“A good example of this is what happened with Nike’s ads featuring Colin Kaepernick. There was a lot of blowback on social media when these ads were released – but six days later, Nike reached an all-time high in stock market prices. The outcry wasn’t reflective of their consumer base,” Rand explains.

And while having consumers hold companies accountable can be useful, Rand explains that it’s not a perfect solution.

“From an ethical standpoint, you shouldn’t make every decision purely based upon what the majority of your customers want,” he says. “And when it comes to things like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics, you should be ahead of your consumers and setting the pace.”

This post was originally published in Master of Management Risk & Analytics.