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Ashok Lalla

Ashok Lalla is an Independent Digital & Marketing Advisor who helps enterprises use digital to accelerate business impact and growth.

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Role Of Digital In Corporate Reputation Management

The task of building a brand’s reputation usually takes years, even decades of hard work. In our digital, connected world, the task of preserving and growing it adds another dimension of effort that needs to be put in, every day, virtually 24x7

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Recent developments in corporate India involving the Tata Group have heightened the discussions around corporate reputation and its management, and how the Tata brand might be affected as a fallout of the developments.

At the outset, I would like to clarify that this is not a viewpoint on what the effect on the Tata brand might be or how the parties involved should handle the issue.

Instead, it is about sharing some truths in the world of corporate brand reputation and the role digital and social media plays in building and sustaining it, as well as what it takes to negate the negative and grow the positive in terms of brand reputation. Just to clarify, my reference to brand reputation refers to both corporate brands and product or service brands.

Truth 1: I have long maintained that real clout continues to be spelt with a C, and not K, that Klout, a measure of digital influence seeks to indicate. The time a corporate brand’s reputation is under fire or being questioned is when this truth truly comes to bear. At such a time, velocity of digital voices rapping the brand for an action is usually tempered by the brand’s reality beyond the digital space.

Make no mistake, the clout I refer to is not bully power, but the real influence of a brand through a long series of consistently delivering to the brand’s core promise, and being seen as believable by a large cohort of its audiences.

Truth 2: Real reputation is built by real actions by a brand, not by trending hashtags or virality of a few opinions about it. These real actions most often take place away from the digital world, where people live and touch the brand. Think e-commerce sites like Flipkart or Amazon. Their reputation is influenced by the online experience, but truly built by the last mile experience of the brand that consumers have. A strong real world brand reputation goes a long way to control the digital impact on its reputation when things go wrong.

Think back to the recent Tata development. While there is shock and awe at the incident, there also seems to be a loud voice of opinion that considers it an anomaly. That is because over many decades and interactions with hundreds of thousands of employees and tens of hundreds of senior executive movements, the Tata brand behaviour has been different.

Where digital can play a role in supporting the corporate brand reputation is when the brand is willing to be real, honest, accessible and responsive through the digital space. Ideally through real people and faces, and not from behind the veil of canned statements. Simply plastering the digital space with positive narrative to overcome a potential reputation hit on the brand will not work. In fact, it will boomerang and come to bite the brand.

The best voice of support for a brand when its reputation is under fire is that of its own customers, employees and partners. Real people who have had a real stake with the brand in the past. And not paid armies of outsiders, digital billboards and influencers whose influence is often limited to their large follower numbers. This is even more pertinent when a brand is attempting to defend its reputation. Organic outreach through few authentic, believable voices goes a long way further in reinforcing the brand’s reputation.

Truth 3: Vacuums create uncertainly and fear, and fuel speculation and rumours. These just get amplified through the hyper connectedness that digital offers. The Tatas, through immediately appointing an interim Chairman ensured that there was no vacuum and therefore limited room for digitally viral speculation that could adversely affect the brand.

Linked to filling a physical vacuum is the need for a brand to steer the narrative, and so ensure that there is no digital vacuum. Notice I said ‘steer’, and not ‘shape’. At a time where there is shock, surprise, uncertainly and some degree of fear, attempting to shape thinking is hard. However, steering people towards a narrative that gently pans out is a good idea.

What it also does is allows the brand to understand how the narrative is being received and spread further. Having a constant presence in the digital stream helps prevent idle, and often damaging opinion to take root.

Truth 4: True reputation is built when it is backed by actions, not just talk. A brand’s past reputation will only take it this far, particularly when it comes to overcoming a challenge to its reputation. While the current Tata narrative may help it control reputation erosion, the actions it takes in the future and their consistency with its intrinsic brand image and its current narrative is what will determine whether its reputation is burnished or tarnished. And again, digital will help provide a real-time barometer to this through its voices and their sentiment.

That brings me to the nature of digital and how embracing it can help revive and reinforce a brand’s reputation.

The real power of digital towards a brand’s reputation is through People Resonance, not Press or Public Relations as conventional PR wisdom suggests. To unleash the positive influence of people resonance it is imperative for a brand to accept some of the truths I have written out. Done right, people resonance can help spread the positive word through the network effects which are stronger and much more believable than forced narrative pushed out through Public Relations mandarins.

Trends are transient, real reputation is enduring. In a digital world, this is very pertinent to brands. Tripping over trying to extinguish every little trending spark often serves to fan the sparks, rather than letting them die out. The digital consumer is overloaded with content and conversations, and allowing a trend to die a natural death is a good step towards restoring the reputation of a brand. That said, at a time when a brand’s reputation is challenged, it is important to listen to the digital stream even more closely, and track changes in sentiment towards the brand. This intelligence can go a long way towards shaping the narrative the brand puts out and making it resonate with its audience. The social media war room often provides greater input than the boardroom deliberations of senior stakeholders.

The task of building a brand’s reputation usually takes years, even decades of hard work. In our digital, connected world, the task of preserving and growing it adds another dimension of effort that needs to be put in, every day, virtually 24x7.




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