They said what?

A strong brand is arguably a retailer’s best asset and if it is very strong, it can provide a powerful competitive advantage.


If it isn’t protected properly, or it’s taken for granted, brand equity can quickly fall and you can, as a result, quickly lose customers and market share.

As we all know, social media sites are often used, with varying success rates, as the focus of a marketing campaign. Social media can be a very positive and helpful tool and there are plenty of examples of this being extremely beneficial for independent retailers in the health food and natural products sector.

It does however come with its downsides, and dealing with negative comments is one of those downsides, as is the risk that competitors, employees or the general public can use the platform to the detriment of your brand.

Monitoring social media

It’s important to monitor social media accounts to see what’s being said about your business, your products and your services and it’s also important to keep an eye on what competitors are doing and saying as well.

As part of your overall crisis strategy, you should build in a brand management strategy which outlines how external (and internal) threats to your brand should be dealt with. As part of that plan, everybody should know who is in charge of dealing with any negative comments that are made on social media (or in the press) and what the company’s overall strategy is.

One of the first things to assess is: are these comments going to be taken seriously? The second is: are these comments going to affect our brand? If the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes’, then saying nothing is likely to be more damaging than addressing the situation.

A useful tool is to write a short and carefully composed response (linking to a more detailed blog or article addressing the situation) and post that response on whatever social media platform is being used to damage the brand.

If the comments don’t require such a full response, and it’s a case of dealing with an everyday gripe, a good way of dealing with things is to respond directly to your customer/member of the public etc., thank them for bringing the situation to your attention and offer a solution. Generally, a good tip is to think about when you last experienced good customer service, how that made you feel, and replicate it.

Defamation

If the comments that you are dealing with are more serious than everyday gripes, it may well be that they are defamatory. They may need to be dealt with legally, in which case it’s worth speaking to your legal team to help sort the situation out and get the comments removed from social media. Being open minded and engaged is important, but you should not have to put up with defamatory allegations which are not true.

One of the first things that you will want to do is remove the online content. It can be done but it’s not always straightforward, especially if you have a defendant who is not playing ball. It’s sometimes possible to make the ISP and website operators responsible for defamatory statements online so going to the publisher direct can be the best way to remove content that is truly defamatory, and limit damage.

Prompt action is vital if this happens. It might sound obvious but the quicker lawyers are on board, the more effective the action they may be able to take.

As a business, you can also take your own immediate action, particularly in relation to gathering the evidence – if you’re dealing with adverse or defamatory comments online, make sure that you screenshot the posts including the date of publication. If you want to take legal action we’ll need the evidence.

Pick your battles though, and together with your legal team, coolly assess what real damage could actually be caused, and whether it’s worth taking action.

Crisis plan

Being prepared is crucial and it’s vital that as a retailer, your business has an up-to-date crisis plan. Rather than keeping it on a shelf, make sure you test it regularly and ensure employees are fully aware of their obligations.

A crisis plan is something that many businesses don’t have, but it’s something that they should have to ensure they are fully equipped to deal with a crisis (of pretty much any nature) when it arises.

One thing that I’ve learnt over the years is that, if a crisis hits, there’s very little time to decide who is responsible for making decisions, who needs to be in the meetings and where the passwords are for the social media accounts. By the time all of that’s been decided you’re into damage control, rather than managing a situation.

Therefore, put a written plan into action and make sure that all of the key people know where it is. Ensure that the plan includes:

  • Who’s on the crisis team (HR, IT, your MD or your FD, in-house legal (or external legal) and is their contact information up to date?
  • Who are the decision makers?
  • Who needs to be kept up to date about how the crisis is being managed, i.e. employees, customers, distributors, the general public?
  • Make sure that your employees know who to contact in a crisis. They are often your first line of defence and if they flounder, then precious time has been lost.
  • Who is in control of the social media accounts? Do you actually know? Who has the passwords? Make sure that the passwords are in the plan and the plan is kept up-to-date.
  • What are the company’s values and, bearing that in mind, what sort of tone does the company want to set when dealing with a problem? Make sure that’s decided when the sun is shining.
  • Bearing in mind the tone that is being set, who do you want to be your spokesperson? Perhaps there should be a few people lined up for that job, depending upon the situation? Are they trained?

Summary

The Internet and social media offers retailers such as you huge growth opportunities along with the possibility to build a really strong brand. At the same time, it has the potential to damage brands and in order to ensure that you’re properly prepared, make sure you have a fully tested crisis plan and the support of specialist reputation management lawyers who understand the retail sector and can help management teams take the right decisions at the right time.

Emma Yates is a specialist lawyer in the reputation management team at Irwin Mitchell.

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