Molotov cocktails and arrested CEOs. Threats to brands grow.

A CEO charged with “violent entry and disorderly conduct” at the Capitol. Two lawyers accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at police in New York. The days of financial improprieties or a CEO’s personal foibles damaging a company’s brand seem quaint by comparison.

In today’s fevered political environment – during an era of ubiquitous social media use – the threats to a brand’s reputation have increased. An employee’s ill-advised tweet can derail a company’s carefully crafted messaging. And an individual employee’s behavior, as in the examples cited above, can tarnish a company’s reputation. Many companies remain unprepared to effectively deal with these challenges and therefore sit in a precarious position, at the mercy of events largely beyond their control.

Company leaders face two key questions:

  • What official guardrails can be put around employees’ off-hours behavior without turning life at the company into “The Lives of Others?”
  • And how can they respond to instances of employee misjudgment or, in the worst cases, criminality in a way that protects their companies’ brands?

The answer to the first question is essentially, “it depends.” Checking with legal counsel is the best route, as you map out the right approach to addressing these complex issues. But there are concrete steps brands can take to address the second question. From a brand management perspective, leaders must put in place strong defenses for their brands while also outlining how they will combat threats to their brands – well before those threats materialize. Here are some key points to consider:

Companies must create action plans they can put into motion at the first sign of trouble. These offensive measures shouldn’t be indiscriminate broadsides against critics. Instead, address employee misbehavior (or criminality) with clear and honest communications that emphasize a company’s values and outline go-forward improvements. These plans must be flexible enough to address the wide range of crises a brand can face today. That’s where thorough scenario planning comes in. A company’s leaders must contemplate and plan for many potential threats to the brand.

Alongside this readiness to respond to brand threats, be flexible in your approach. If you have a narrow, social media-driven focus, it’s easy to think crises are bigger than they truly are. Step away from the online world and assess the “crisis” in the context of the larger marketplace and a company’s key audiences (including customers and employees). While it’s tempting, from a brand management perspective, to deploy the full array of countermeasures at the first sign of trouble, it may be best to sit back and let trouble pass with little or no response, in some cases. In other cases, quick and decisive action may be warranted. For example, the firm implicated by its CEO’s actions at the Capitol acted quickly in firing the CEO and making a clear statement that emphasized the organization’s values.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the healthier and more robust a brand is, the more it can withstand. Investing in strategic brand-building and maintenance can pay dividends when employee behavior threatens the brand. This effort should include everything from crafting engaging foundational messages to strengthening credentials with high-quality website content and coverage in top-tier media outlets. A company must tell a consistent and compelling story to the market through a mix of channels (from digital ads to social media posts). With this cohesive and omnichannel approach, a company will continually strengthen its brand, enabling it to withstand the threats that could arise.

Reputation management has always been complex, unpredictable and challenging. It’s only growing more so in the current political and media environment. Companies must build up strong brands, account for the wide range of possible challenges to those brands resulting from off-hours employee behavior and create action plans they can deploy in response to threats to their reputations. Those that take these steps will put themselves in position to weather the wide range of brand crises they may have to confront.

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