Brand Damage: Coping with Bad Press in the Digital Age

The media is buzzing over the story of Brad Manning, who released 92,000 pages of war documents showing failures to preserve civilian life in Afghanistan and previously undisclosed ties between Pakistan and the Taliban. These documents are now hosted on, the whistle blower protection platform founded by Julian Assange. The White House has condemned the leak of classified documents as endangering lives and breaking federal law. But they are undoubtedly also be upset that Wikileaks has dealt a powerful blow to the marketing campaign behind the war in Afghanistan.

Brand image is created through marketing. It is the collection of feelings and images that a consumer associates with a company or product. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2003, we’ve seen a brand develop out of the narrative surrounding the war.

The current buzz phrase is “Winning their hearts and minds.” However, a quick search on youtube for this phrase leads to a video of a tank crushing a taxi driver’s car because he was “stealing firewood.” The brand image of the Afghan War is hurt by soldiers misbehaving on camera, whistleblowers leaking documents and publishers providing safe-havens such as, not to mention the rapid dissemination vehicles that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have become.

The BP oil spill is another example of extreme brand damage exacerbated by the power of social networking. Follow BPGlobalPR on Twitter. You won’t regret it. Here’s a recent Tweet:

“Can’t believe it. @bpTerry got drunk on his tugboat last night and ran over ANOTHER oil well.”

BPGlobalPR has 188,053 followers.’s servers soon overloaded after releasing the Afghan War Diaries. These Major third party online publishing platforms hold the attention of a fairly large segment of the population.

You can’t always control what gets published about your brand, but here are a few tips to help you prevent and minimize long-term damage.

1) Be as transparent and forthcoming as possible with your audience. Make sure they know you are working for their best interest and value their feedback. Establish channels of communication between your marketing team and your target market. Establish some of your content in the public domain. Wrap some of your work around a Creative Commons license and let your audience remix your work. Social media should be a part of your comprehensive marketing campaign.

2) Authenticity is more important than perfection. B.P. wrote in a full page NYTimes ad, “We understand that it is our responsibility to keep you informed and to do everything we can so this never happens again.” Compare that to the White House’s comments on Wikileaks’ hosting of classified documents: “In addition to breaking federal law, the leaked documents pose a real threat to be harmful to both US military and those cooperating with our military efforts.” The White House didn’t address the issue at hand. Currently, B.P. is doing a better job of damage control.

3) Be human. Respond to the emotions of your audience. If you made a mistake that hurt your brand image, apologize and explain what you are doing to correct the situation and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. If you haven’t made a mistake, reassure your audience that you are doing everything right.

4) Don’t be a tattle tail. B.P. tried to froce Twitter to reveal the identity of the user tweeting as BPGlobalPR, claiming “copyright concerns.” Twitter did not comply citing freedom of speech and B.P. ultimately hurt its own image by appearing vulnerable to parody. Likewise, the White House will only hurt its own credibility by chasing after Julian Assange and silencing publishers like Wikileaks.

Be brave in connecting with your audience. They may support you more than you think. Your audience will be more sympathetic if they understand where you are coming from. Be open and playful. Watch out for media “spills” and “leaks” so that they can be managed appropriately. Most importantly, admit when you’re wrong.








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