How does a brand cope when its worst enemy is among its ranks? Worse yet, what does a company do when its top talent is in revolt?
Of course, it’s a common occurrence, but I’m not referring to old-school sabotage. I don’t mean stealing the Rolodex and leaving the building. Rather, brands across industries are managing a more mundane kind of mutiny at every turn: the sort that happens when your employees’ social media is at odds with the company line. Or, the talent simply outshines the brand that feeds, shelters and grooms it.
Much ink has been spilled by newsrooms about how social media has impacted their trade. Reporters’ Twitter feeds sometimes clash with the news organizations for which they work, as noted by the New York Times (paywall). But the larger issue isn’t about toeing the line; rather, it’s the deeper truth that consumer loyalty today belongs to the personality, not to the organization.
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Social media allows you to follow the human; that’s the fun of it. Twitter is about hearing straight from the horse’s mouth, not about subscribing to a brand or its products. Yet, as social media becomes ever more vital in the media space and clout is often what drives mainstream media coverage, this tension merits a closer look. Consider how a reader might follow Jeremy Vine but maybe not the BBC, or follow Roxane Gay but maybe not HarperCollins. Take the example of investigative journalist Ronan Farrow. He writes for the New Yorker and appears most regularly on NBC and MSNBC but also has written for other publications like The Guardian, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
Yet, publications and networks used to boast consumer loyalty. Now, the brand doesn’t nurture talent: It chases it. The talent hops around, gathering momentum and steam, as the news organization gladly takes it when it can. In the process, the brand is diluted — and demoted to being inferior to the celebrity. Social media makes brands malleable and less meaningful.
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How does a brand combat this phenomenon?
From my PR perch, I believe it’s a two-pronged approach — and one prong is a lot trickier than the other.
First, there’s the simpler part: CEOs need to get in there, too. A company must assert CEO presence through social media, content creation, public speaking and other forums that best fit the CEO’s talents and the nature of the brand. It is vital for companies to invest money and time finding someone to help you make that impact in a way befitting your company and the audience it needs to reach. Social media may degrade brands, but it also offers the CEO the chance to embody that brand in a dynamic way and be its best ambassador.
Business leaders and thought leaders should think of social media as a chance to build networks and amplify others’ voices — not just as a personal soapbox. I also recommend cultivating relationships with writers and other thinkers, makers and entrepreneurs relevant to one’s field. Such networks pay dividends and open new doors. Follow through on all communications, and link to new connections on all appropriate platforms.
The second prong is more fundamental in nature and naturally far more difficult to address. We are all free agents now; the gig economy is endemic. Gone is the notion that a single career at a single company can accommodate a person from professional cradle to professional grave. Most freelancers and even full-time employees wouldn’t argue that they are biting the hand that feeds them, but rather that their companies do too little in kind.
We need more transparency and loyalty going both ways. We haven’t seen the long-term effects of our present media economy, meaning we don’t know how it will look 20 years down the road. When brands have no reason to invest in cultivating talent, talent loses the chance to develop from the ground up. Brands feel no reason to invest in talent when it will up and leave and take its following, but they need to realize the cost of doing so is that they will only ever be able to engage the famous who bring their own audiences along to the show.
The whole economy — media and otherwise — could do with a heavy dose of reciprocity and obligation.
To tackle that second prong, offering job security and benefits creates a culture of trust between workers and employers. When employees feel taken care of and secure in their own jobs, the need to hustle and manage an image distinct from a brand is no longer a matter of life-or-death importance. That culture of trust is the stuff of which brand loyalty is made: The more a company can retain talent, the more the consumer knows the quality of its output is consistent. This benefits the consumer in another far greater way: It allows the brand to take risks and experiment. I work with a record executive who told me that for every star he’s backed, there are at least 20 who failed, and every single one of those failures required the same initial investment of capital and time as the success did.
In the meantime, as we wrestle with these bigger questions, business leaders need to remember this: While they may have every confidence that their brand boasts purpose, prestige and culture, they had better get cracking on their personal Twitter feeds if they want the rest of the world to know, too.
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