Leslie Gaines-Ross uses Harvard Business Review to highlight the issue of companies' reputations coming under attack from "small-scale adversaries in command of a surprisingly potent new-media and social network arsenal: blogs, tweets, text messages, online petitions, Facebook protest sites, and digital videos".
Gaines-Ross points out that a single, highly motivated critic with a personal computer can do significant damage to huge companies.
She gives the example of Leroy Stick (an alias) who, following the explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, published satirical tweets from a bogus BP global public relations division.
She recalls: "While crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating the regional ecology and economy, the satirical Twitterer (@BPGlobalPR) tweeted about the division's lunch menu and other inane matters. Tens of thousands followed his updates—far more than the number who followed the real BP Twitter account.
"Through this low-cost effort, Stick helped keep Americans' rage boiling as BP scrambled to plug the well and restore faith in its brand."
Gaines-Ross says that corporate leaders can borrow strategy from the military in dealing with these assaults.
She explains: "After the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, the U.S. Army War College’s Centre for Strategic Leadership and Canada's SecDev Group conducted a review of what they recognised as a new form of conflict: 'informational warfare'.
"Hezbollah, the weaker side in conventional military terms, had used new media to win hearts and minds around the world, discrediting Israel's position and sapping its political will."
Two SecDev scholars, Deirdre Collings and Rafal Rohozinski, later wrote a special report called Bullets and Blogs, which laid out several principles of effective counter attack. Gaines-Ross insists these strategies can also apply to the defence of corporate reputations, and picks out six for use within this context (described below).
1) Avoid any show of force that could be perceived as grossly disproportionate. "The battle over reputation does not always favour the parties with the deepest resources," observes Gaines-Ross.
"On the contrary," she says, "it tends to saddle them with greater obligations. The world’s Goliaths are generally viewed as being in a better position than its Davids to behave reasonably, justly, and humanely, even when acting in self-defence."
2) Respond at high speed with instincts honed by advance training. Time is of the essence. But because the majority of companies are "slow moving and consensus-driven", damage from an attack can continue to spread while managements seek a convenient time to meet and formulate a consensus for their defence.
Gaines-Ross offers the example of a Fortune 200 company whose executives spent almost a week to come up with a 140-character response to an attack on Twitter.
This highlights the importance of preparation. Companies should train their people to use new media so they can respond in a timely and appropriate manner.
3) Empower frontline teams to meet message with counter message. "Employees who share their company's vision and values are its natural allies and most believable voices," insists Gaines-Ross. She offers the following examples:
"When Frank Eliason was Comcast’s director of digital care, he started a Twitter account named @ComcastCares – putting, in one deft swoop, a human face on a company disparaged for poor customer service.
"American Airlines credibly countered a customer’s tweeted complaint about a $50 fee for an oversized bag when a flight attendant, Tim Schwartz, explained on Facebook that the airline had no choice because of the limited space on the aircraft."
4) Go rogue in your own tactics. In 2009, a television report was scheduled to investigate a $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador over alleged contamination of the rain forest. To get their side of the story out first, the company's executives hired former CNN correspondent Gene Randall to make a documentary showing Chevron more favourably.
The documentary was released on the Chevron website and YouTube three weeks before the television report, so critics were taken by surprise and the public became more aware of the company's viewpoint.
5) Recruit and deploy 'force multipliers' who will echo your message. Gaines-Ross explains: "In the military anything that amplifies soldiers' strength – whether it's a sophisticated technology like a GPS-enabled drone or a social advantage like a sympathetic local population – is referred to as a 'force multiplier'.
"At a time when reputation losses can snowball rapidly, even the best-resourced companies need force multipliers. Ideally, these should include a network of independent third parties willing to take your side."
6) Go into battle with credentials in place. Stockpile credentials that illustrate your company's good work.
Gaines-Ross insists that positive recognition by third parties in the recent past can allow the company the "benefit of the doubt" in situations where the facts are disputed.
In conclusion, the author says: "If you want to protect your company's image, you need to rethink your reputation management and acknowledge that you have considerably less control over your corporate messages than you had just a few years ago."
She adds: "Perhaps no corporation will ever decisively 'win' its reputation war; the battle is ongoing. But by changing your mind-set, adopting new tools, and taking the principles of reputation warfare to heart, you can protect your business from the worst of the snipers' attacks."
Read more stories like this with a FREE two-month trial subscription to Leadership & Management Review.