Twitter complaint signals the start of a revolution for corporate reputations

James Frayne
BRITISH Airways has just been exposed to the future of corporate communications. When one disgruntled passenger decided to complain about the quality of BA’s customer service, he ignored the traditional route of an angry call or email. Instead, he bought a promoted Tweet on Twitter – guaranteeing visual prominence for other users – to tell people not to fly BA.

This is just the start. We are witnessing the beginning of a democratic revolution in corporate reputation management. Ordinary people are becoming the primary voice determining what the outside world thinks about modern businesses. Not mainstream journalists, politicians, or so-called stakeholders, but ordinary members of the public with an internet connection and a viewpoint.

In this new world, businesses can no longer rely on the traditional communications model – the tripartite model of advertising, elite media relations, and insider lobbying. One-way, top-down communications no longer works. The reputations of modern businesses are now shaped in collaboration with ordinary people in giant public conversations online.

As such, businesses must develop the same approach taken by the best political campaigns – focusing overwhelmingly on influencing public debate. Campaigns have, after all, long been used to driving their message to ordinary people in a fast-paced, unpredictable public conversation. But what needs to change?

The first step for many will be the biggest – businesses must completely integrate their communications operations, ending the cultural, logistical and budgetary divisions that often exist between constituent teams. There should be one team that takes a single, global view on how to promote and protect the desired image. A director of communications should play the equivalent role of campaign manager.

Businesses must also embrace the scientific approach to communications that now defines campaigning culture. Just as they have in their advertising campaigns, firms need to work out exactly who they want to influence in public conversation and how. They must get serious about the equivalent of voter targeting, narrowing their communications efforts to those that matter most.

Another defining characteristic of modern campaigns is the deployment of messages that appeal to the public emotionally. Research strongly suggests that emotion trumps reason in debate, and businesses need to start using concepts like fairness, honesty, and decency. Further, with emotional appeals in mind, businesses must get into the field of endorsements on a huge scale. It is one thing for a chief executive to tell the world how great their business is, but something else when the comments come from respected independents.

Finally, businesses need to learn from campaigns in radically speeding up their decision-taking capabilities. As companies across Britain are seeing, the public conversation now moves at an extraordinary pace. Even five years ago, businesses generally had a few hours to respond to a developing story. Now, there are effectively no deadlines at all. Firms must engage constantly with the outside world to shape opinion.

Campaigns stay ahead of the game in two ways. First, they use the concept of the war room to suck in and process information and then take decisions rapidly to affect the developing climate. Crucially, those working in the war room have the authority to take endless decisions without consulting higher authority. Indeed, there is an expectation that this will take place.

Secondly, campaigns take strategy seriously. While many executives obsess about strategy from an operational perspective, few take it seriously from a communications perspective. When the media was the source of their most serious external challenge, and coverage was irregular, they could accept the odd period of muddling along. Now, any indecision is fatal for a business, and they need a clear strategy to go with their efficient decision-taking system.

Some have taken steps in the right direction. Brewer SABMiller has developed a range of highly-effective web materials to influence public debate, and Porsche famously mobilised thousands against a proposed new charge on higher-CO2-emitting vehicles. But they are in a minority – most companies remain wedded to an elite model that considers the general public as a mass of people to be influenced from a distance.

For most businesses, dealing with the explosion of public opinion will require very significant cultural and operational changes in their communications teams. But the nature and scale of the challenge demands it. Businesses must put the general public first.

James Frayne is a communications consultant and a former director of communications in government. His new book, Meet the People, on how to manage public opinion, is published by Harriman House.