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Reputation Warfare: A Synopsis on The New Rules of Social Media Branding


Reputation Warfare was written by Leslie Gaines-Ross in December 2010, however some of the lessons and warnings written in the Harvard Business Review still ring true today. One of the biggest threats for companies is social media and how quickly one bad (internal or external) tweet or post can ruin a company. Therefore, it is vital to always make sure to be clear on what the brand is about and its core values. This synopsis will go through Gaines-Ross's article on Reputation Warfare and will provide some updated examples of companies (good and bad) who needed to protect their reputations.

A first great example of where social media proved its speed was at the Fyre Festival. I am sure by now many people have seen Netflix's documentary Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. This entire festival was doomed from the start with a poor infrastructure and fraudulent activities from the festival organizers, however they were able to cover everything up until someone tweeted the dinner for the evening.

Fyre Festival Dinner
Fyre Festival Dinner

This tweet ending up going viral causing the company to tank within minutes proving how one bad social media post can turn into a public relations nightmare.

Things to Note

Gaines-Ross starts the article by listing 4 important things to note.

  1. Critics no longer need the resources of an institution. This means that anyone with access to social media can immediately be for or against your company. These critics can utilize social media as a means to tear down your company even if what they say is false

  2. Although some antagonists are truthful, not all of them will be. Again Gaines-Ross talks about companies preparing for misrepresentations from people wishing to do harm on social media.

  3. Attackers are probably not levelheaded. This point is made to express that many of those who have negative things to say about a company are possibly emotional due to a past experience with the brand. This, in turn, has caused them to go as far as posting on social media; attempting to turn others off the brand.

  4. Business leaders have no advance notice or time to reflect. As we have seen time and again, social media is real time and therefore people are expecting companies to respond in real time. There always needs to a backup plan to ensure a time effective response.

The next portion of the article goes on to talk about tools and tactics companies can use to protect their reputation and avoid warfare.

Tools & Tactics

The first tactic is to avoid any show of force that could be perceived as grossly disproportionate. Gaines-Ross says to make sure that the response to the incident matches the scale of the incident. This means that if someone sends out a harmless tweet do not respond with a $50,000 lawsuit since this response is seen as disproportionate to the incident. Not only would this impact your reputation as a brand but would also change the way customers view your company.

The next tactic is to respond at high speed with instincts honed by advance training. In short, Gaines-Ross is saying to make sure that the company is prepared for any instances that may occur and to attempt to train for those situations.

One example of this quick response can be seen with the airline company, United Airlines after a video went viral of their employees forcibly removing a passenger from a flight. The video was indeed graphic, and there was a large outcry from the public. United's upper level management was swift in their response, showing that they had trained for moments of crisis such as this. Even though, the message was a PR nightmare in itself, the response came in a timely manner. Here is an article from The New York Times explaining more about the responses.

Empower frontline teams to meet messages with counter messages is Gaines-Ross's third tactic. This means that you should allow for your people on the ground to engage with those asking questions and/or complaining. A way to do this is to have your social media manager trained to respond to customers on all platforms. Not only should they be able to listen to concerns and feedback, but also on praises. This practice is what we would call nowadays, social listening.

The fourth tool is to go rogue in your own tactics. This means that you should use the communication tools and tactics that best fit the situation. Basically, this means that if a post on Instagram goes viral, your company should respond through Instagram and not through a press conference. It simply means that companies need to think about the location of the crisis and plan their actions accordingly.

The next tactic is to recruit and deploy "force multipliers" who will echo your message. Gaines-Ross explains force multipliers as, "anything that amplifies solders' strengths like a GPS drone or a sympathetic local population." The example in the article was of Royal Caribbean being criticized for taking tourists to Haiti after the major earthquake that devastated the island. Little did the negative commentators realize, but the company heavily invested in humanitarian aid for the country during this time. Many bloggers soon took up for the cruise liner and became advocates of their activities.

Gaines-Ross's final tactic is to go into battle with credentials in place. This is important for companies to stockpile which speak on the company's goodwill such as; awards, accreditations, merits, and recognitions. A great example from the article was when Target, a huge supporter for LGBTQA+ folks, gave money to a political candidate who was clearly not a supporter of the community. However, due to Target's credentials they were able to prove that it was a mistake to support that candidate, and stopped supporting them.

In the end, Gaines-Ross leaves us with this final thought, "you may have to deal with unknowns that can turn your company's name to mud overnight. Perhaps no corporation will ever decisively "win" its reputation war; the battle is ongoing. But by changing your mindset, adopting new tools, and taking the principles of reputation warfare to heart, you can protect your business from the worst of the snipers' attacks."


Gaines-Ross, Leslie. “SPOTLIGHT ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE NEW RULES OF BRANDING Reputation Warfare.” Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2010, pp. 3–8., Material/articles Reputation Warfare HBR 2010/WS_2010HBR_Reputation_Warfare_Electronic.pdf.

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