Somewhere in the back of my head, I keep hearing my grandmother’s warning that a reputation takes years to build and minutes to destroy.

Too bad more companies can’t hear her, too.

In the past month, we’ve collectively watched multiple brands implode from decisions removed from every measure of common sense.

Just yesterday Adidas issued a swift apology after sending a marketing email to its customers congratulating runners for “surviving” this year’s Boston Marathon. Customers were quick to remind the company about the real survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and wounded more than 260 more.

Who Offered United a Pepsi?

United Airlines shocked travelers with its handling of not one but multiple passengers — all of them aggrieved by inflexible policies that failed to take the human factor into consideration.

Pepsi thought it was good marketing to invoke imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement in a cringe-worthy effort to sell soft drinks.

Of course, they weren’t the first brands to watch their reputations evaporate overnight.

Remember back in 2014 the late American Apparel confused an image of a space disaster that took seven lives with a fireworks display?

Yep, one of the company’s social media managers reblogged an image of the fatal 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion to the company’s Tumblr account — then trivialized the image with the hashtags “smoke” and “clouds.”

Of course, there were others.

US Airways tweeted pornDiGiorno made light of domestic abuse.

And the list goes on. And on.

Beyond Brand Damaging

But here’s the problem. As Andrew Winston noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article:

“The speed of shame is as fast (and as ruthless) as the internet. When will companies realize that everyone now has a video camera on them, and that they can broadcast live on Facebook within minutes. People can now destroy brand trust at the speed of light, with consequences that are far-reaching.”

In an era of instant mass communication, no business has the luxury to ignore, obfuscate or spend two hours spinning a response to a mistake. By then, the incident will already be trending on Twitter.

Privacy is a myth. So is the notion that employees always act responsibly, without any corporate policies to guide them.

Employees don’t always think before they tweet, pause before they post or weigh the impact of whatever they plan to say. Nor can they always detach from their own emotions long enough to ask, “How will dragging a passenger off the plane affect our company’s market valuation?”


So what can companies do? It’s a weighty question, especially in this so-called Age of the Customer.

Forrester coined the phrase Age of the Customer back in 2011 to refer to “a 20-year business cycle in which the most successful companies will reinvent themselves to systematically understand and serve increasingly powerful customers.

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As Forrester explains:

Customers expect consistent and high-value in-person and digital experiences. They don’t care if building these experiences is hard or requires a complex, multifunction approach from across your business. They want immediate value and will go elsewhere if you can’t provide it.”

Reputation Protection 101

Companies struggle when they embrace technology without an equal regard for people, processes, and data.

Rather, they have to recognize that even the best technology is only a tool — and that it’s successful use is based on a comprehensive strategy. That strategy should include policies and procedures that support the company’s mission, vision and values.

That, of course, takes time and the right technology partner to execute. So in the meantime, let’s discuss a few simple steps to prevent major brand meltdowns.

The most important: Hire the right employees. Reputation management is often based on employee behavior. That means recruitment and internal branding — in the sense that all employees should internalize the company brand values and act accordingly — are among the most important ways to manage corporate reputation on- and off-line.

Next, tell your employees to always assume they’re on camera. It’s a great way to train people to stay calm, act rational and avoid images or videos that could forever haunt your brand.

Regardless of your best intentions, mistakes happen. So practice the art of delivering a sincere and unqualified apology. Don’t blame, make excuses or over think the response. Just concede the obvious. “We have made a terrible mistake. We are deeply sorry.”

Socially Awkward

Remember, as a company, your social media does not exist in a vacuum. It is simply part of your overall communications strategy. Apply the same level of scrutiny to information disseminated through social media that would be done elsewhere. To that end:

  • Stop reblogging, retweeting and reposting with impunity. Whether your using your personal or your company social media account, read everything before you share it. The random reuse of information “could combine to create ideal conditions for rumor persistence, belief polarization and the dissemination of misinformation that can — intentionally or unintentionally — undermine deliberation.”
  • Understand your audience. Successful social media accounts curate relevant content and engage their audiences.
  • #Think. #Pause. #Think Again. Err on the side of caution. Your brand is too valuable for impulsivity.

Noreen Seebacher is the content evangelist at Arke, where she researches, writes and continues her long career in news reporting as a brand journalist. Noreen lives in Beaufort, South Carolina with her husband, her dog and four formerly homeless cats.