One of the problems with microblogs is that anyone can say anything online — there are few laws regulating how information is posted, managed and verified.
The fact that large organisations continue to hire PR agencies with the express purpose of provoking negative commentary about their competitors will surprise few. But in a market like China, where the communication industry is playing catch-up with an economy that has seen unrivaled growth, the issue is particularly acute online. Agency practitioners who put ethical best practice ahead of commercial opportunism remain the minority.
Too often companies look for quick and easy results. Rather than doing the hard work to build their own brands, they embark on smear campaigns against their rivals. But this is folly.
While many Chinese companies do not appreciate the sustained investment required for brand building and management, the pressures and consequences caused by new media make it too serious to ignore.
How can companies protect their brands?
Today’s PR practitioners should focus on the positive. Following are six tips for protecting and enhancing corporate reputation online.
1. Integrate social media when pushing out key messages. Companies need to integrate their brand’s identity and add social media elements to their traditional print or broadcast messaging. Since customers are everywhere today, be sure to go where they are in order to engage efficiently and strategically. Establishing a presence on these critical platforms means that when a crisis looms, not only will you have a stage from which to defend your reputation, you’ll also have an audience to tap into for support.
2. Adapt the corporate messages into local languages and “transcreate” (a term coined by creative translation house Mother Tongue) those messages into culturally meaningful communications. Too much meaning can simply be lost in translation on social media platforms. Also, encourage diversity and localisation, because your reputation should be able to cross all boundaries.
3. Engage your audience while being authentic and transparent. Suntech, a Weber Shandwick client and a leading global solar manufacturing company, has been under considerable pressure of late. The past year witnessed something of a meltdown of the solar industry, due to a massive oversupply of solar panels, which resulted in waning profitability and thinning margins. As companies started going out of business, operational excellence and financial management became priorities for the industry. Amid the turmoil, Shi Zhengrong, Suntech’s founder, announced that he was going to step down as CEO and act as executive chairman and chief strategy officer, in a bid to ensure the company’s survival through management restructuring. Within days, Shi published a blog article titled ‘The Next Chapter’ that outlined the thoughts behind his actions, achievements and chal lenges, and how the company was ready for change. It is best to protect reputation by being as straightforward as possible. Your stakeholders will reward you for it.
4. Review all company policies, including the social media policy, to ensure that employees do not tarnish corporate reputation, intentionally or not. Draw up some guidelines for social media engagement before encouraging staff members to blog or tweet, and make sure guidelines are provided to new employees. Your organisation’s reputation is too important to leave to chance in the anarchic world of social media.
5. Form a crisis communication committee, activate influencers, prepare dark sites and push out key messages. Due to the radical nature of social media, and the round-the-clock news cycle, be prepared for the worst. Have a social media crisis plan in place, and regularly run through social media crisis drills — or risk executing the plan blind, untested, under the trials and tribulations of a real crisis.
6. Implement and sustain a robust, ongoing online monitoring plan to gauge the opinions of key stakeholders. There are some very good tools for monitoring and assessing social media trends, some of which are available for free, that can help monitor what is being said about your company and its products. It is better to see what is being said about your company on a day-to-day basis to forecast any negative news than to wait for the proverbial you-know-what to hit the fan and then try to respond.
Natalie Lowe is vice-president, Emergent China practice, at Weber Shandwick; Alistair Nicholas is executive vice-president, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick
This article first appeared in CW magazine, published by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)