Early in my career, while working for a Fortune 100 company, I flew to the Philippines on a business trip. It was the weekend before a series of meetings, and over 100 sweltering tropical degrees, but I was dressed in a full suit and tie. That was company policy. It was made perfectly clear that wherever we went and whatever we did, we represented the brand -- and we were to look and behave accordingly.
Looking back, I don't recall ever seeing the official rules on publishing pornographic images of a woman being violated with a model of one of the company's products in response to a customer complaint. I'm guessing it would have been frowned upon, though. They were just old fashioned that way.
While I am impressed with the confidence of any company -- particularly one in, say, the aviation industry -- that chooses to mitigate a crisis with an "accidents happen" shrug, I'm starting to feel like things are getting a little too modern for my comfort level.
Because here we are, another week, another unbelievable incident involving a major brand's conduct online -- complete with the requisite handwringing over overworked social media managers, and calls for better approval systems for public communications.
To which I say, give me a break.
I know a lot of people who are working extremely long hours. I don't know anybody, though, who has published racist jokes, lewd tweets or expletive-peppered rants -- much less on their company's public platforms. And the solution is not the kind of review process that was once reserved for typos. "Oh, it looks like you used 'there' instead of 'their' and you also dropped an F-bomb and mocked the AIDS crisis in Africa."
Is this really what brand management has become?
If we can at least agree that these occurrences can no longer be called isolated, we may also see they are not "accidents" or "honest mistakes" either. They are the results of a total abdication of responsibility for the brand voice, a lowering of personal and organizational standards, and a mindset that defines oversight as afterthoughts and apologies.
More and more, brand managers are told that they are the public voice of a brand and somehow interpret that as meaning that their own voice is now appropriate for the brand. Or at the very least, the two can be compartmentalized. They are the brand voice at their desk, but not on their iPhone -- as if, once published, there is any difference.
These mental gymnastics and false differentiations are total distortions of the basic principles of branding. And many organizations -- either through lack of understanding, a desire to get their communications done on the cheap by assigning 24/7 social engagement to a small team of younger staffers, or often both -- encourage or enable that type of thinking.
The fact is, now that brand voice is constant, a brand manager is never a civilian. Well, not never. When you are having dinner with your grandparents, make all the lewd, pornographic, racist and incendiary comments you like. But the moment you are in a public setting -- that includes your own personal social media profile, much less your brand's -- you must relentlessly embody brand standards.
The fast-and-loose tone of digital communications, the pressure to respond quickly and conversationally, and the explosion of touch points with the public are not excuses to be more cavalier. Quite the opposite. They are strong reasons to be more careful and conscientious than ever before.
This is something that needs to be understood and embraced at the individual level, but it also needs to be conveyed and clarified by an organization's leadership. That is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of effective communications leadership today. Because as we see, time and again, the spotlight is always on. And when the full force of it is turned on you and your brand, the heat can be unbearable. Call me old school, but I'll take Manila in gabardine any day.