How to Prepare for and React to Viral Stories About Your Brand


Last Updated: October 27th, 2021

Guest post by Jonathon Morgan, CEO at Yonder 
The Information Age has ushered in a golden era of interconnectivity. Astute observers of this phenomenon are aware that the new reality is both a blessing and a curse. The most creative and innovative brands have been strategic about using the internet as a platform to create community and meaningfully connect with their audience. 
At the same time, this interconnectivity means that all types of information — true, false, helpful, and harmful — can spread in the blink of an eye. According to a 2021 report by Visual Objects, 67 percent of consumers try to understand a company’s online presence before even considering the brand, further proving the importance of ensuring the most accurate information is being shared across the web.

For communications teams, this challenge presents a tremendous opportunity to step up and lead their businesses as the first responders in mitigating brand risk.  

Communications professionals are on the front lines of protecting brand integrity

Communications professionals are typically the first to see when a viral narrative is emerging. Perhaps your brand is suddenly trending, a spokesperson for your company is being targeted online, or your brand is being boycotted, as seen when Coca-Cola held a stance against the Georgia Voter Law earlier this year. 
The first step is to identify the origin of these online conversations. Because strategic communications teams typically serve horizontally across organizations, they are uniquely positioned to work cross-functionally and coordinate a response in the event of a crisis.

However, “crisis” is the keyword here: It may not be worth your time and your company resources to overreact when something about your brand goes viral online.
Social intelligence tools can play an unprecedented role here. First and foremost, effective social intelligence tools can determine whether these online conversations are authentic or inauthentic. Modern marketing and communications teams are adopting social intelligence tools in order to know what’s coming day-to-day, make strategic daily decisions that mitigate risk, and stay in control of their brand’s image.

Why do viral incidents still catch brands off-guard?

Unfortunately, it’s still very common to see these incidents catch communications teams off guard. This is because most teams only have traditional social monitoring and listening tools in place. While these systems tune into keywords, trends, and hashtags on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they have a huge blindspot: they can’t monitor fringe channels online.
Remember when QAnon conspiracy theorists targeted Wayfair, claiming that the company was trafficking children through their website? Although this claim was blatantly false, this faction knew that using a well-known brand as a vehicle to spread disinformation would garner more attention for their conspiracy. And it worked: What started out as a single Tweet quickly turned into mass media headlines and primetime coverage. Online chatter that appears to come out of nowhere can shape a brand’s reputation and bottom line in a matter of days or even hours.
Another way that brands get caught off guard is when factions troll their company executives, employees, and other spokespeople. Factions are often able to get an off-the-cuff reaction out of them, further spreading their agenda through this opportunistic publicity. Most brands have executives, board members, and spokespeople that have established some political affiliations, either through communicating their stance on hotbed issues online, through charitable giving, or through their informal relationships with organizations. 
And who could forget how the “WallStreetBets” subreddit boosted GameStop’s shares in defiance of all market norms, eventually costing hedge funds billions of dollars? The most influential internet factions are experts at tapping into the infrastructure of private forums and chat rooms to rapidly spread their message.

How to make your brand less vulnerable to viral stories online

Friends looking at their phones

With a social intelligence tool, your brand can determine where a viral event was initiated, who started it, and who is amplifying it. Traditional social analytics tools are not capable of answering these critical questions. Once your brand’s marketing or communications team understands the motivations of the online faction responsible for starting a petition, spreading a hashtag, or otherwise sharing some kind of viral message, they can determine what sort of impact their actions online could have on the narrative and your brand’s integrity
Based on the faction’s historical track record, your team can assess the likely trajectory of the narrative: Will it spread to channels or audiences that matter to your brand?
If the viral narrative is authentic, it’s imperative that you take action. Inauthentic conversations are spread via bots, low-quality accounts, and other methods for making a few voices sound much louder online. But even an inauthentic narrative that’s being manipulated to appear authentic can be a threat to your brand’s reputation and valuation. 
At times, addressing the narrative can further incite it. Social intelligence platforms can provide your brand with insights that can help decide whether or not to take action by activating your leadership and communication team. For example, Yonder can monitor the source of the information and other non-mainstream channels (think: 4chan, Gab, and Parler) in case the narrative takes a turn that would represent a crisis for your brand.
Social intelligence can empower your strategic communications team to completely avoid these incidents. If an incident has already occurred, using these same social intelligence tools can provide data-backed answers and a plan. With these tools, communications teams can provide insights and data that are relevant across many different company functions, including public relations and analytics. 
Incorporating social intelligence tools into your communications strategy can also monitor emerging narratives around high-level issues that impact your industry, making sure you don’t get caught in the crosshairs of advocacy groups that are instigating petitions and boycotts. 
It has been clear for some time that managing these communications crises is a high-level process, not a one-time effort. Brands that are doing the work now to preemptively prepare for viral online stories will be less vulnerable than those that try to default to their gut instinct.

Jonathon Morgan is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Yonder. Prior to Yonder, he published research about extremist groups manipulating social media with the Brookings Institution, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, presented at NATO’s Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism, the United States Institute for Peace, and the African Union. Mogan also served as an adviser to the US State Department, developing strategies for digital counter-terrorism. He regularly provides commentary about online disinformation for publications such as New York Times, NBC, NPR, and Wired.1.

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