Are You Ready For Brand Vandals?

Internet-fuelled media is a game-changer for brand communications. You’re no longer in control – in fact, you never have been.  Are you ready?  I doubt it.

The biggest change in brand communication in the last 60 years is that it can no longer be one-way. It should never have been, but brands have tried to manage the flow of information to their audiences, often using the media as a proxy for what used to be seen as engagement.

It’s much easier to deal with a handful of journalists than manage thousands of direct relationships.  Thanks to the Internet, everyone now has a voice and the opportunity to call out a brand.

Consumers have shared their views of brands whenever one or more people have gathered together: in coffee shops, pubs, school playgrounds, bathrooms or bedrooms.  The difference now is that everyone can share these opinions for anyone else in the world to see, and can even undertake acts of brand vandalism.

And guess what?  They do.

The Internet has democratised elites and flattened society.  Now anyone with a mobile phone or tablet with access to the Internet can publish their point of view about a brand.  If they are upset, they can write critical comments.

These views can be shared thanks to social media or discovered thanks to search.  Communication between a brand and its audiences has become two-way, or a conversation, to use the modern day parlance of the Internet.

Difficult Conversations

Brands can no longer avoid these conversations.  And why would they?

These same brands spend vast sums on advertising, marketing and public relations, in a bid to engage their prospects, customers and stakeholders positively.  Thanks to the Internet they can now find anyone talking about their business or the markets in which they operate.

Not all brands want to listen to these conversations though, and some claim to be listening but aren’t at all.  But then these conversations don’t always make for easy listening.

Brands used to operate under the belief that they could control how a message was communicated to an audience.  Much of the discipline of corporate communications has been built on this premise.  In reality, brands can plan their public relations activity and carefully craft messages and content, but control has never really been possible.

Today, thanks to the Internet these conversations also now take place beyond physical boundaries and locations.  They are passed on through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.  Each individual with their social and digital connections is the gateway to other networks. Once a message hits a social network any notion of control is immediately lost.

There Ain’t No Stopping It Now

The genie is very firmly out of the bottle, and there is no going back.  The Internet has seen phenomenal growth in the last ten years in particular, with more than two billion people now connected online.  The two technology drivers have been broadband networks and mobile.

In the western world, networks are being upgraded from copper to high-speed fibre.  In Asia and the BRIC economies, countries are leapfrogging directly to fibre.  Mobile connectivity is following a similar cycle as networks are upgraded to 4G or built from the ground up in markets.

Here’s a defining signpost for the future:

2013 was the year that the Internet went mobile as the number of consumer mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets overtook personal computers, according to data from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer (KPCB).

Access to the Internet is becoming truly ubiquitous.  You better ensure that your website is responsive to different browser environments if it isn’t already.  Facebook and Google are building their businesses with the expectation that around three billion more people will join the web by the end of the decade.

In the late 1990s, when consumer internet connectivity first became a mainstream consumer product, the Internet was a destination.  It was a place that you visited using a personal computer and browser.  Now we carry the Internet around in our pockets thanks to smartphone devices and burgeoning mobile networks.

The shift to mobile marks a notable behaviour change for consumers.  This was significant as it removed the shackle of wires.  Consumers could browse the Internet on the move, which has added an additional layer of information and communication to life.  It’s a layer that transcends government and commerce and democratises society.

The next surge of growth is already in sight as electronic products such as cars, and consumer white goods are connected to the Internet, to share information and data to form the so-called Internet-of-things.

Two-Way Engagement As A Reputational Defence

Much has been written about the skills that corporate and government communications teams must possess in the Internet Age.

The emergence of popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter has promoted a rush of digital teams and communicators to come to the fore – who professed to have the skills to be able to tackle online reputation crises.  Perhaps many did, but the fact that the medium is digital is not the point.

What it comes down to is that the Internet has accelerated the need to respond quickly beyond all known recognition, forced complete transparency and lowered the bar for editorial entry to near zero.  It means communications teams do need some new skills to be able to deal with this changed media environment, but they also need to sharpen up their acts across the board too.  There’s nowhere to hide, and no room for comfort.

There’s a long list of the skills required, as well as a large dose of common sense.  Here though, are the five skills that modern brand communications teams should develop in order to be effective.  None are new, but all are fundamental, and need to be stretched beyond the bounds of the era of print and broadcast being the primary forms of media.

1.  Brand Fitness

The way communication is orchestrated to tackle brand vandalism must be rooted in military-like procedures , so that everyone knows their place and there is a place for everything.  Procedures, multiple paths of action mapped to foreseen circumstances, content production, revision and approval.  And the people who need to come together to make it all happen must be corralled into one cohesive, progressive function.

2.  Flexibility

Having ironed out any rough edges that existed, overcome weak spots and brought order where only limited process existed, there must also be an early warning system.  It must also be inherently pliable, so that it can adapt quickly and with minimal effort to any change in immediate circumstance – as well as to evolve progressively as media continues to become more sophisticated, and brand or commercial priorities change.

3.  Media Savvy

You’ve also got to keep a permanent watch on the media environment: only by charting media change and understanding the implications of new technologies and new techniques will you have the level of protection that the brand really needs.

4.  Speed

The people running the system and involved in every aspect of the communication function have to be extremely agile.  There are effectively no deadlines, as it’s a case of as soon as is physically possible.  We’re not robots though, and human beings can only move so fast in order to react.  So the underlying support system and pre-approved plan needs to enable them to move as fast as they humanly can.

5.  Wit And Wisdom

Finally, communicators must be ingenious, even when faced with the most tortuous of sabotage incidents , because they have an opportunity to gain cut-through and take the advantage for the brand.  Doing so will require a team that is organised, adaptable, agile, calm and brave, but beyond that success can be driven through ingenuity.