For leadership teams and boards, 2020 will be remembered as a time when chief communication officers stepped up and shined in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. As brand communicators responded to the ever changing COVID-19 landscape, seamlessly pivoting strategy became the norm.
When pandemic restrictions threatened commerce, they reached out to assure customers. When social justice issues pushed brands to take a stand, they were transparent and authentic in listening to consumers and inviting their participation in messaging. When the spotlight shifted to brand value and brand purpose, they demonstrated their agility in breaking down barriers and communicating differently with customers.
In the crucible of 2020, brand CCOs refined their crisis communications skills and rapidly evolved from crisis preparedness to crisis readiness. Their role became more closely linked to the C-suite, and their power in driving day-to-day business results became more tangible.
Going forward in 2021, changes in a CCO’s duties and responsibilities will be affected by several initiatives that will be front and center: building trust, increasing consumer participation, and fostering the human connection with customers, employees, and business partners.
Lurking just beneath the surface of all those initiatives, though, will be the responsibility for anticipating and mitigating the reputation risk posed by social media. The biggest near-term reputational threat to brands is digital chatter—something brands are beginning to understand but don’t fully comprehend, in the same way they didn’t see cyber risk as a serious threat a decade ago.
Of course, today, we find ourselves in the middle of a sweeping cyberattack that has breached U.S. government agencies and major companies. Like the malicious code that can compromise any business, the harmful content in digital chatter is a ticking bomb every brand is exposed to. More than social listening to keep tabs on your brand from a marketing perspective, you need to see digital chatter through a separate risk lens.
We predict that CCOs will step up in 2021 to confront the growing reputational risk to brands presented by harmful content spreading instantly to millions of consumers in hours, not days or weeks.
ASSESSING THE ACCELERATED RISK LANDSCAPE OF 2021
Risks will surface online faster and with greater consequences in 2021, forcing CCOs to navigate the complexities of the role, anticipate upcoming trends, and respond to challenges with agile communications.
Will unknown instigators try to kill your brand just for the fun of it? Will they amplify disinformation as part of a plot to short the stock of your company? Will offensive or derogatory content about your brand spiral into a full-blown crisis?
The tremendous growth in social media use—a direct result of the new habits that people adopted during COVID-19 lockdowns—has made it much more difficult for brand communicators to sift through an avalanche material to anticipate, flag, and address reputational risks.
According to Statista, there are now 4.66 billion internet users worldwide, which includes 4.14 billion social media users. In the year ending October 2020, more than 450 million people started using social media—an average of more than 14 people every second. Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, experts don’t expect that numbers of users will decline once things get back to “normal.”
The vastness of the internet—with an indexed, surface web of more than 4.5 billion sites and a deep web estimated to be up to 500 times larger—is further complicated by the velocity of its evolution. Sources of misinformation and disinformation taken down are almost immediately replaced by websites, social media platforms, and applications that position themselves as alternatives to more mainstream offerings to avoid fact-checking.
Along with the proliferation of these alt-tech platforms, constant changes in online terminology force risk intelligence experts to constantly revise and expand their understanding of platform and language evolution in order to identify and act on potential reputational threats.
We expect the digital space in 2021 to be a mash-up of ideologies around diversity and inclusion, environmental activism, gender rights advocacy, conspiracy theories, continued political divisions, and a multitude of grievances. Although we anticipate coordinated communities will continue to spread rapidly online, their ability to disrupt companies and brands will be open to question until they choose to engage.
A brand CCO who leads with a mindset of readiness in the face of external adversity will be able to plan, develop, and execute sophisticated strategies across multiple communication channels. For nearly all business sectors, social media platforms present opportunities to build relationships—internally and externally—and to ensure engagement and dialog that can make an indelible impact on corporate reputation and branding.
When it comes to internal employee communications, remote work and dispersed workplaces have also had a big effect on the role of CCOs. More than ever, employees expect to stay informed and connected to how their company is doing. Heading into 2021, employees—as much as customers and other stakeholders—will exert a huge influence over a brand’s reputation.
BRANDS CHALLENGED TO MEET HIGHER CONSUMER EXPECTATIONS
Month after month of adversity and uncertainty in 2020 inspired innovation and, to a large extent, changed what consumers expect from brands. Heading into a new year, expectations are higher than ever, with the presumption that brands will continue to lead with ingenuity, maintain a sense of purpose, take a stand on social issues, and show a willingness to do the right thing.
Brands must prove they understand their customers as human beings and that they’re doing good in their communities and in the world at large. Ultimately, consumers expect brands to take a stand on human issues, especially because they believe that brands can.
Increasingly, “brand” represents how people perceive the organization, and consumers are gravitating toward companies that support socially important endeavors. CCOs can galvanize the entire organization around a single mission of trust by focusing on the values that matter to the customer.
Coming out of 2020, consumers are optimistic about brands’ ability to harness tech in a human way and provide stability in a world that feels increasingly out of balance. Brands that do this can build new customer relationships and deeper loyalty based on mutual respect. Brands that can’t risk serious reputational damage.
Brands find themselves in a unique position—having never had this much power or opportunity to create positive change, but also being exposed to more risk and vulnerability. For CCOs, this means that consumer scrutiny of a brand’s products, ethical practices, and purpose in the world has never been more intense.
The brands that have been able to withstand that scrutiny have managed to flourish even during these turbulent times. Thriving or not, company executives are feeling the pressure of an uncertain future. C-suite confidence has plummeted across the board, according to a Deloitte survey.
As we look ahead to a post-pandemic future, people will continue to look to brands for help and will reward those that can meet their most pressing needs in the moment. A Deloitte poll of consumers showed that as times got tougher in 2020, they expected more from the brands with whom they do business:
2021 MARKS A CAUTIONARY RETURN TO THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Given the rapid changes in customer engagement expectations coupled with customers’ increased appreciation of, and dependence on, digital technology, it’s more important than ever for CCOs to leverage their owned social media to more broadly and dynamically boost engagement and participation with customers.
While traditional relationships between brands and customers were often a one-way street, a two-way conversation can interactively foster and nurture brand loyalty and customer advocacy. In 2021 and beyond, brand CCOs will have abundant opportunities to invite their customers to help inform their strategy, products, and services.
To truly answer the call of the customer, CCOs should be able to sense and understand their customers and their needs. Brands that want to compete in this new, participatory social media landscape need to listen to customers closely and be able to separate the good intentions from the bad.
With the advantage of real-time detection of potential reputation risks, CCOs can achieve a new level of preparedness and a rapid-response ability to avoid any escalation that could damage reputation, reduce revenue, or affect operations.
Protecting your brand from harmful content and bad actors who are intent on disrupting that customer engagement requires a comprehensive solution that not only eliminates this harmful content but also identifies and blocks instigators before an issue becomes a crisis.
What people want most in 2021 is a return to the human experience—with trust, participation, and connection driving purchase decisions. As digital technologies bring people and brands closer together, CCOs can harness that connectivity and bolster their engagement strategies as vital brand stewards.
CCOs are ready for the task of returning brands back to that human experience and of anticipating and mitigating the reputation risk posed by digital chatter. If 2020 proved anything, it’s that the constant need to pivot strategy has prepared them to thrive in the year ahead.