Review: Brand Vandals

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#Brand Vandals: Reputation wreckers and how to build better defences by Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington
#Brand Vandals: Reputation wreckers and how to build better defences by Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington

Be very afraid
Brand VandalsThis is the follow-up to the same authors’ first book, Brand Anarchy, published last year.

Since then the two authors have separated as business partners, and there’s a separation evident in their contributions to this new book.

Waddington wrote the first section, an overview of the digital and media landscape while Earl contributed the second section, an analysis of how organisations can defend themselves from attacks on their reputations.

The two sections complement each other well, though the difference in writing style is marked. Waddington uses an anecdotal style typical of popular business books, citing interviews with many of his colleagues, friends and industry contacts and referring to academic and business books. Earl writes in a much sparer style, with fewer anecdotes and citations.

Published on Hallowe’en and designed with a black front cover and black chapter dividing pages, this is meant to be a scary read. Yet for this reviewer, most of the fireworks were set off in Brand Anarchy leaving less to enthuse over here. It’s still an important read, though, as I hope to illustrate. Two chapters, one from each part of the book are essential reading.

Chapter 2 (‘From anarchy to terror’) maps out the complexities of the digital media landscape in which privacy is under threat and trust is scarce. ‘The reality of social networks is that if a service is free, you’re the product. Consumers continue to use services providing that the value they gain outweighs privacy concerns’.

The surprise in his section is that given the potential, it’s remarkable how few rather than how many instances there are of reputation wrecking. Perhaps it’s simply that things can only get worse. As Waddington writes:

‘Our view is that we’re at the very beginning of what is possible and that brand vandalism will become a way of life for citizens and organisations in the future.’

Chapter 12 (‘Battle-ready in 90 days’) is the one that most practitioners will turn to first, though it’s the last in the book. The key message is that:

‘There is no such thing as a digital crisis versus a regular crisis. Today, all crises are digital because all media is potentially digital, just as all information is potentially digital.’

So what can be done? From the perspective of a corporate or brand, prevention is better than cure, so it’s time for ‘a thorough assessment of risk and capability, plus putting some basic systems and defences in place so that the brand emerges better protected’.

What’s the worst that could happen? ‘Some things can be predicted, other things can be foreseen with some reasonable guesswork, but most things either fall into your lap, crawl up your trouser leg or slap you around the face.’

When a brand comes under attack, it needs allies. ‘[It’s] going to take time to develop … staunch advocates and other people engaged with the brand who can scrutinize or stand up for the brand when it’s under attack.’

Earl intriguingly proposes simulating a sufficiently credible attack to ‘smoke out’ who is likely to come to your assistance. ‘What sort of test should you undertake? Well you’re not going to aim a missile at the ship just to see whether it misses, but it has to be pretty purposeful… The best you can do will be to let loose something that’s ultimately harmless but that is likely to prompt a reaction from your audience that can be assessed meaningfully. It won’t be anything like a real attack, but it will at least give you an indicator of communications performance and tell you who your friends are.’

It’s an example of public relations living dangerously. These are risky times indeed.