A warning for brands on the ‘court of public opinion’

Over the past year there have been a number of sad and sordid scandals relating to previously untouched national treasures of television and film. In today’s world, it seems to take one cut-through act accusing or alleging misconduct that captures public attention for the floodgates to open. 

Where social media, traditional media and news outlets that are somewhere in between mingle, it seems that a few of the old cautious principles of reporting slip away a little. The word ‘alleged’ does not appear quite as much as it would have done previously and the ‘no smoke without fire’ adage seems to underpin the lines of thinking. The volume of similar accusations and the tracing of past rumours fuel this position of tacitly assumed guilt.

In the absence of charges being pressed in some of these cases, the jury becomes the media and a handful of enraged and saddened peers; the initial sentence is mere social ignominy and the removal of some commercial opportunities.

These stories tell us something important about the growing power of social media today. As James Wolcott wrote in February 2015’s edition of Vanity Fair: “The Internet is an accelerator and force multiplier of opinions and perceptions. Indignation is its rocket fuel. When social media swerve against a popular personality, the traditional damage-control methods of well-greased PR machinery are usually no match for the stampede of screaming meemies. Endearing personas and impressive careers that once took months and years to ruin can now crash and burn over the course of a few news cycles. The bigger they are, the faster they fall."

As we found when investigating the concept of trust within financial services, social media noise and 24-7 news can easily make us feel overwhelmed and personally affected by stories that are far removed from our lives, rapidly amplifying the impact of scandals. There are numerous recent examples of this in other sectors - witness, for example, Tesco’s performance challenges in the wake of the accounting furore. 

This raises a red flag for brands. In marketing, we often talk about the importance of perception - it’s not necessarily what you are but how you are seen. We’ve talked exhaustively about authenticity in the past - it’s old hat now.

The new benchmark is surely integrity. Brands are going to need to operate with impeccable honesty and almost super-human consistency of mind-set and endeavour. They will be held more and more to account for minor breaches of an unwritten social contract and the people behind those brands will be exposed. Any failings in their corporation’s moral compass will be their personal responsibilities and long-standing careers will be damaged with one slip, one leak.

Senior leaders will need to exercise the utmost rigour in charting a path for their brands that finds a way to achieve commercial performance - often in challenging market conditions, such is life these days - in harmony with integrity. Brands are going to need to have characteristics that are more fundamentally human than many of the attributes we have worked with in the past. They will need to have heart, to have soul.