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Business Leaders Must Embrace Social by Design: Trust and Reputation Weighs in the Balance

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If a picture paints a 1,000 words, a transcendent symbol, image, or storyline can powerfully galvanize an enduring value or vision.

Everything now is social by design. And this operating reality holds essential implications for crisis and reputational risk management. Business leaders must take note that is no longer possible to rely on words alone to influence material outcomes in the court of public opinion, particularly on the most challenging and contentious issues and events.

Symbols, imagery, video and other multidimensional content communicates values, beliefs, transparency, aspiration, leadership and commitment in vital ways that humanize leaders and increase trust in the face of conflict and risk.

As important, companies and their leadership must be much more proactive in adapting a creative mindset to manage and communicate risk. This includes adding fresh faces to their risk-management teams: creative types and thinkers, from strategy, marketing, analytics, and social communications and elsewhere, who will add bold and original ideas to communicating with interest holders on the most heated issues.

Zeitgeist is everything

Why? Because the times dictate it. We know from the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer's data and analysis that the democratization of social influence coupled with rising income inequality and prominent revelations of misbehavior and greed have inverted the classic pyramid of top down influence. Organizational leadership simply can't take the trust of the mass population for granted.

No longer does a full-page newspaper ad from a CEO responding to a crisis muster an impact. But visual images - from videos to ad campaigns to charts and Infographics -embolden leadership and the brands they represent by creating more dynamic, informative and emotionally connected dialogue with the lex populi.

It's not a novel idea. Increasingly, companies are using inventive ways to tell their stories, activate their advocates or subdue detractors whose criticisms or attacks gain increasing attention.

Consider what Blue Bell, the nation's third-largest ice cream maker, did last year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked its desserts to a listeria contamination and deadly infection outbreak. While the century-old family-run operation was criticized for responding slowly initially, it telegraphed its apologies to customers through a series of videos in which employees from all levels expressed heartfelt messages. Those video messages succinctly conveyed Blue Bell's regrets much more powerfully than a traditional full-page letter from the CEO in newspapers and elsewhere.

Or look at Heineken's response after a picture circulated on the Internet of a dog fighting match at a forum festooned with banners advertising its beer. Viewers assumed Heineken had officially sponsored the dog fighting event in Mongolia and some called for a boycott of the company. Using a strong Infographic that included the negative viral image with a red cross circled on it, Heineken effectively communicated that it doesn't support dog fighting and explained what happened and what it did in response. (The Heineken banners had actually been for a promotional event the night before and hadn't been removed when the dogfight took place.)

Countless Content Avenues

Smart reputation risk managers are using a growing assortment of images, symbols and novel visuals to combat sensitive situations and crises. For instance, after its damaging recall of its accelerator pedal, Toyota began tracking its progress visually on its website. Among other things, it updated regularly how many accelerator pedal repairs had been completed. It also gave links to customer comments and a company blog on the situation that viewers could click on easily.

When customers wondered if McDonalds used pink goop in its Chicken McNuggets, its Canadian operation answered with a video that transparently answered those concerns by explaining what the nuggets actually contained. And after Chevrolet faced a painfully awkward moment when a spokesman, in presenting a new truck to the 2014 World Series' MVP, described its features as having technology and stuff - sparking a popular hashtag on social media - the automaker turned those three words into a marketing slogan backed by an ad campaign.

Remember the 2011 ad campaign Taco Bell launched against in the wake of a lawsuit. The Taco Bell ad simply headlined: Thank you for suing us, followed by the smaller subhead, Here's the truth about our seasoned beef. And after an employee left her job at Next Media Animation and posted a video of her leaving with an I QUIT message that quickly went viral on social media (reaching 6.75 million views in less than four days), Next Media cleverly replied via YouTube with a parody We are Hiring video in the same format as the video that had gone viral.

For business, the new slate of Facebook emojis should signal a major realization. It's time to break through the clutter and stop the dependence on the war of words--it doesn't work. Reputation risk management is a dynamic sport and that's time to put your creative on.

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