I have, for most of my life, been a fan of hands-on learning. But when it came to learning about brand safety for the first time, I think I might have preferred the classroom approach.
I arrived at my job that fateful day without a concern in the world. Coffee in one hand and bagel in the other, I logged into my company’s social listening platform to see what conversations had queued up overnight. What I discovered was a Twitter conversation that suggested our small exam-prep startup was advocating cheating on the SAT, complete with a branded infographic from our blog.
Considering that “how to cheat on your exams” wasn’t exactly one of our target search terms, I was a bit surprised to say the least.
After some investigation, I was both encouraged and dismayed. Thankfully, the infographic being used was a misinterpretation of how to use an app to train during practice tests. Disappointingly, however, a number of people had not realized this, and it had sparked conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and a somewhat prominent college prep forum. The day that followed was a stressful crash course in brand reputation management. For weeks after, I was frightened to log into our social listening platform for fear of finding that our brand’s name had been permanently marred online.
As our brands push out ever more content and our audiences continue to discover new ways to share and interact with that material, how we as marketers support brand safety should take center stage—and content marketers in particular have unique opportunities and risks they should take into account.
Image attribution: Ben White
So what exactly puts your brand in an unsafe position?
When we talk about brand safety in the digital space, we mean the risk that your company’s ideals, perspectives, or actions will be portrayed in a way that is contrary to the values you actually hold. The more negative this inaccurate framing, the greater PR risk your company becomes exposed to.
An interesting example of this has been going on since 2016 courtesy of an activist group called Sleeping Giants. Sleeping Giants’ Twitter account at-mentions brand accounts with screenshots of their banner ads on various political extremist sites, hoping to prompt those brands to blacklist those pages in their advertising networks. The pressure tactic here is a very simple, direct example of brand safety: The group seeks out brands whose public ideals are contrary to the pages their ads run on, and then they publicly associate the two to push the brand towards pulling their ads.
This is a pretty direct issue to see and address—pull the ad and apologize. But how does this dynamic change with more involved content?
There are three key ways that content can be used to harm your brand’s reputation, ranging from overt to subtle.
On the overt end of the scale, a person or group online can steal your content—whether by directly quoting your writing, re-editing video clips, or copy-pasting images—and use it to serve an end that runs counter to your brand’s ideals. On the plus side, you’ll often find that the more strongly contrary to your brand these attempts run, the less convincing the material reads. On the downside, however, catching this type of content can be difficult unless people start talking about it—and if people are talking about it, there’s likely damage being done. We’ll unpack this a bit later.
Slightly less overtly, people can link to your content in support of a claim that your material doesn’t actually support. The advantage here is that there isn’t direct manipulation of your material going on, so hopefully discerning audiences will be able to understand the values your material stands for on its own accord. The downside is that if your material does seem to support the damaging claim, it will do so with a larger measure of authority because it’s coming directly from material on your site.
The last and most intangible threat to your brand’s content are conversations that take place online referencing your material without actually linking to or stealing your content outright. If participants in the conversation are willing to fact-check these sorts of claims, they’ll often fall apart—but the rapid pace of most of our online conversations means this step rarely happens without some brand intervention.
From a brand reputation management standpoint, it can seem like a lot to keep track of. But with a handful of tools and a bit of foresight, it can be easy defend your brand’s safety and actually use content to proactively address threats before they arise.
Image attribution: Jon Ly
While PR issues are bound to arise at some point in relation to your content marketing, it doesn’t mean your team can’t proactively work to stem the tide. Given the three major threats we’ve discussed above, here are a few ways your team can monitor threats and protect your brand online.
While negative brand framing on a website or forum is certainly bad for your brand, the real spread and spillover to worry about is when that negative framing gains traction on social media or news outlets. Catching the start of these conversations is often a powerful first indicator that you might have a problem and can help you enter the conversation at a crucial point. Social media management platforms and/or PR management tools are a great way to set up sophisticated, automated searches for conversations that might hint at a problem for your brand.
As an SEO-obsessed content marketer, you might think that backlinks are always a good thing. But backlinks from disreputable sites not only ding your credibility in search, it typically means your content is being referenced in a space that isn’t safe for your brand. Monitoring referral traffic in your web analytics and backlink statistics in your SEO management platform is a powerful way to catch sites or conversations that are possibly associating your content with ideas or ideals that aren’t accurately reflective of your brand.
Above all else, the surest way to combat negative, false narratives about your brand online is to establish a strong history or pedigree of positive content and conversations related to your brand ideals. Consider sitting down with your PR stakeholders to discuss what high-level ideas are most important to communicate to your audience, and then craft content specifically around demonstrating and exploring those ideas through your brand. Should a crisis or misrepresentation arise later, it becomes very easy to point to your history of positive content in support of your brand’s true self.
Defending brand safety into the future is likely to become more complex as we develop new and even more complex systems of communication online. But content will always serve as a reliable foundation to tell your brand’s story over time and establish a solid presentation for what you believe and how you behave. Protecting the clarity and consistency of these messages in your content creation and distribution will always be crucial to a coordinated PR effort.
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Featured image attribution: Henrik Hjortshøj