Reputation management is dead

13th April 2017 - 7 minutes read

The past two weeks have presented the media, industry pundits, and anyone with a social media account with ample opportunity to give Pepsi and United Airlines (UA) a good old kicking. And quite right, too.

I won’t go into the sad story of these two global brands, but suffice to say they screwed things up spectacularly – United Airlines won the prize for biggest balls-up ever by dragging a passenger off one of their airlines to the utter shock and outrage of other passengers (and the world). As a consequence, their share price took a dive.

Yet for all this, the usual messages keep flowing out of Pepsi and UA as they try to manage the crisis and their reputation. There’s an old saying in our world: don’t do stupid things! If they didn’t do stupid things in the first place, they wouldn’t be wasting so much money, energy and time on fire fighting the shit-storm they’ve created.

But it’s now time that CEOs and their senior leadership teams, including their communications heads realise that reputation management is dead. It died when social media arrived.

Communications needs to shift gears and start playing an active role in shaping the reputation of their organisations, including the brand experience. This means sitting at the top table and shaping the agenda – the reputation.

The challenge is to shift towards a new way of shaping reputation and building positive brand experiences through human-centred communications. That means placing the customer at the centre of the brand – the story – and building the entire business and reputation around the customer.

In order to do this, organisations need to intimately understand their customer – their stories and experiences with the brand – and reconnect with them through their narratives. It also means organisations need to reconnect with their Purpose and give it meaning by understanding their customers better. This is data-driven empathy – deep insight.

This insight gives organisations the holy grail of branding and reputation shaping – emotional attunement.

At the end of the day, businesses rely on customers – people. This is about forging a relationship with customers, so it’s critical to tune into the customers’ emotions – their needs, wants, desires and aspirations. Often great relationships are built on the ability to actively listen – and to listen with intent and purpose to give more meaning to the relationship.

Pepsi may want to become ‘social leaders’ but they’ve got to understand the narratives that bind these movements and how people perceive these stories. This means going into the cultural and symbolic artefacts that shape the stories of struggle. These are highly emotional, super-charged issues that must be treated with great respect.

Airbrushing the story with beautiful Millennials who find peace and love over a can of Pepsi is a bit like asking someone to sugar the pill. It’s massively disrespectful and dishonours the narrative that goes with these struggles. (David Kolbusz wrote a wonderful piece about the Pepsi ad debacle in Campaign magazine.)

Yet Pepsi could have done a better job had they approached it through a human-centred communications framework. This framework posits deep insight at the heart of the process.

United also has the chance to restore its reputation – it’s a long road back to rebuilding trust but it’s a path that they just have to walk. If they don’t they’re out of business.

UA should conduct a root and branch review of its customer experience by mapping the journey and uncovering the stories that people carry in relation to the experience and brand. The brand experience then needs to permeate every customer touch-point of the journey from booking a flight to getting off the plane at the end of their destination. Take it one step further by helping customers get to the ultimate destination safely.

UA ought to develop a project called ‘Coming Home’ and be open about their approach – acknowledge the monstrous cock-ups and focus on reconnecting with their true Purpose by understanding their customers intimately. This could be their story for returning to their roots – ‘Coming Home’ inasmuch as it is about their business. (As a side note, I sent an email to Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines suggesting all this – let’s hope he reads it and takes on board some of the suggestions.)

By involving their customers in a redesign of the experience and story, UA can begin the first steps to rebuilding its reputation and restoring its brand.

All this requires upfront investment in gathering deep insights to build rich customer personas, but the return far outweighs the costs – better engagement, superior experience, greater emotional attunement – which leads to loyal customers. And a better reputation overall because it will be coming from a place of authenticity.

In Seth Godin’s book ‘All marketers are liars’ he makes the case for authentic storytelling. Fall short of being authentic and the brand is full of crap. And people aren’t putting up with crap anymore – social media is making sure of it.

So, stop trying to manage the reputation of the organisation. Instead, put people at the heart of the brand by applying deep insight and build the story and reputation from the customer’s perspective. Make human-centred communications the focal point of building reputation and brand experiences.

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