For a lot of businesses marketing and PR is often seen to have one ultimate goal – drive sales. The equation is simple, the more people who see your brand and are engaged by your message or content, the more likely they are to buy from you. But there is another side to communications that we talk about less – reputation management. At first glance you may be inclined to think that this is something for global organisations or ‘controversial’ industries and not the domain of the small or medium sized company.
However, that’s really not true. Any brand, in any industry has to keep an eye on overarching consumer sentiment. Think about it this way – say you operate a HR technology company. You offer tech to other businesses to manage their employees. That’s pretty safe and benign, right? Well, say a company is found to use similar technology to monitor its employees in a deeply unethical or unfair way. It’s a big scandal and the fall out results in all HR tech being viewed with suspicion. Obviously, you didn’t do anything wrong but, nevertheless, new business is impacted severely as other companies don’t want to be seen anywhere near the scandal.
The impact of social media
This isn’t a far fetched scenario – it happens with increasing regularity due to social media and the fracturing of traditional news outlets. There is an increasingly blurred line between fact and opinion, legitimate concern and manufactured outrage, and newsworthy and clickbait. In the old days a reputation crisis could be managed by mitigation and anticipation. The risks could be identified and plans put in place to act quickly on key media channels. Now, a crisis can emerge from any source, on any issue and be amplified by social media and clickbait driven news outlets in a matter of hours. Critically, because modern media works against the clock, finding sources or evidence to back up an allegation against a company can be an afterthought. This means many companies can have their reputation hit without actually doing anything wrong. By the time the facts are out there the news and social media cycle has long since moved on.
It may seem like there’s no defence against such a chaotic media environment. However, that’s not actually the case. There’s a very simple way for brands to protect themselves – paid media. Specifically, branded content that outlines how your company is different, ethical, or has certain safety or security standards. In essence, the differentiators that will stop your business being tarred with the same brush if a scandal hits your industry.
Content can fill the narrative gap
To understand why, let’s think of the nature of social media generated crises – one: they often disappear as soon as they emerge and two: nearly every issue is subject to ‘both sides’ arguments – put simply, people like to fight about every topic. Point number one means that the high point of negative attention might be fleeting, but also that many more people will hear of your brand or the type of service or product you offer in this context for the first time. Therefore, it is essential that enough content is already out there to fill in the narrative gap and educate people on what your company or service really is about. If the only news information available is the bad story – whether real or imagined – that will be the only influence on your brand’s reputation.
Turning to point two – there are potentially thousands or millions of advocates who will counter argue for your brand if there is a crisis. Providing ready-made content for them to use as ammunition in their debates can help to blunt an outrage and has the virtue of spreading your brand’s message to a wider audience.
The power of engaging content
The key difference between paid content and, for example, posts on a company blog or tweets is one of longevity and credibility. Research consistently shows that most people consider content – whether paid or ‘earned – on a mainstream media outlet more powerful. They engage with it at a higher rate than most other marketing channels, they spend more time reading it and they are often more ‘convinced’ by it. Most branded content is also permanent – it is easier to find, more prone to being shared and engaged with for a much longer period of time than a tweet or Facebook post. As such it is a much more powerful tool to fight your corner than pretty much any other marketing output.
It’s also important to remember using branded content for reputation management does not mean it cannot also be used to drive sales. It may mean you do not directly try to ‘sell’ your business but rather explain the philosophy behind it or the issues you and your company care about. Generally speaking, this is best practice anyway. People find content that is based around thought leadership – for example, advice or opinion – much more useful and engaging than pure sales material.
Crucially, improvements in technology now mean that running a branded content campaign is much more efficient and easier than it was even a few years ago. Nearly every company can find media outlets that will have opportunities in line with their budget. It’s no longer just for big corporations.