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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Branding, Social Media and How to Avoid a Communication Crisis

Many people have asked me what branding and social media have to do
with each other.

This is an incredibly important question – actually THE most important
question communication experts must deal with today.

If you understand the importance and connection between these two
things, you will be equipped with "risk insurance" for your
organization in the case of a communication disaster. You will be able
to:

• Predict a crisis that will come way before it ever starts
• Perceive the signs of a crisis before it starts to affect the value
of your organization
• Minimize the damage of a crisis in its early stages
• Help the organization recover from a crisis once it's blown up

The fact of the matter is that communication crises, like fires, are
normally completely avoidable. It is only our own sense of
invincibility and denial of reality that causes them to fester.

But let's start at the beginning – let's talk about branding for a minute.

Brands are a fact of life today. Every organization has a brand, every
product is a brand, every service is a brand, and every person is a
brand.

Brand is really synonymous with image. It's a kind of shorthand that
people use to interpret their worlds and make decisions.

Brands come about through the actions of the individual or
organization together with the social, economic, political, and other
realities of the larger environment.

For example, if you run a luxury fur coat company today, you are by
definition up against a cultural definition of your brand as
unethical: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has 2
million supporters.

At the same time, there are still those who drive gas-guzzling
Lamborghinis and routinely spend $12 for a cup of gourmet coffee.

It's up to you to develop an action strategy to effectively manage the
conflicting values represented by these opposing realities.

Now let's go to social media – a social force equally strong as
branding, that is the very opposite of this discipline.

Social media is essentially what happens when people speak up without
restriction. There is no "trying to create an image," only authentic
self-expression.

It is extraordinarily difficult for companies to build a brand in an
environment such as exists today, there self-expression by way of
social media has literally exploded to the point where you cannot shut
people up anymore.

Companies themselves are expected to participate in social media,
leaving them in the odd position of creating and managing an image,
and yet having to be completely authentic at the same time.

Of course, this is impossible. You can't be wearing makeup and going
without makeup all at once. Either you're plastic or you're not,
right?

Well, not necessarily. Which brings me to the solution.

The way to handle branding and social media is to actually be your
true self at all times.

This goes for companies and this goes for people.

In this way, you do develop an image, and the image is the same as
your true self.

More importantly, what people say about you is going to be basically
the same thing as what you say and do, because there is nothing to
hide there.

In short, branding in 2010 and going forward is about transparency.

The art of it is in doing two things, and here is where we get to
communication crises:

1. You focus your brand on one thing. Not everything.
2. As long as it is legal, of course, your brand can be morally "good"
or "bad," objectionable or unobjectionable – the point is that you
don't have to be Pollyanna to have a brand. You simply are focusing on
one area. (Most consumer products can be objected to on one level or
another.)
3. Wherever you have focused your brand, this is where you are
especially and absolutely transparent. You do not promise to be
completely transparent in all respects of your operations (though you
do have to be ethical) – only here.

When you have aligned your brand, you are then in a position to spot,
avert, manage, and even eliminate the communication crises that
threaten all organizations constantly.

Remember: A communication crisis is really a fancy way of describing a
broken promise. It happens when you do something so much in contrast
to your promise, that it completely undermines your credibility among
your audience.

In the age of social media, what you say about yourself is only the
starting point. What really matters is what people say about you. So:

• Take the time to decide who you are as an organization – it may not
match the fantasy.
• Focus in on one thing that you can do better than anyone else.
• Deliver on that promise. Communicate your delivery.
• And monitor what people are saying about you.

When you see that a gap is developing between the promise and the
reality, do something to bridge it and repair the damage - before the
shaking ground beneath your feet becomes a devastating earthquake.