It’s A War Out There – Interview With #BrandVandals Author Stephen Waddington

Chatting to Stephen Waddington about his latest book #BrandVandals is like reading the book itself. Much as Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’ let’s you read the words in his actual voice so too does #BrandVandals – we can only guess, and hope, that Steve Earl sounds exactly like his section too. We’ll wait for the audio book.

#BrandVandals: Reputation Wreckers and How to Build Better Defences: Corporate Reputation Risk and Response (to give it it’s full title) bridges the gap between what can happen and what business can do about it. Something, by Stephen’s own admission, their first book Brand Anarchy didn’t quite manage to do. Here’s what he had to say when we caught up with him.

Hi Stephen, welcome to The Spin Alley! We loved #BrandVandals…

You don’t have to say that!

Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say to authors? Either way we genuinely did love it -we actually finished it which says a lot!

Thanks. We knew we were onto a winner with the style when we heard some universities were refusing to let students quote Brand Anarchy in their essays as an academic text. This  time round  though there are some ‘sciencey’ bits and more facts – although they’re mostly in Steve’s part! We decided on #BrandVandals because we didn’t think #BrandFuck would make it through the edits.

We see your point! Why did you feel the time was right for a sequel?

We definitely left things out of the first book but the sequel came about purely because of demand. #BrandVandals helps readers understand the premise, the worst case scenarios and how to deal with it when it all kicks off. We actually started writing the book about this time last year and wanted to help brands answer the question: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’

The book centres around  this idea of going to war with those pesky brand vandals as the enemy – is that really the case?

We’ve adopted a language to best tell this story of brands on social media. It’s a metaphor that works well because, although it’s extreme, it encapsulates all that #BrandVandals is about and it’s an easy way for people to understand the lie of the land out there.

Gotcha’! Do you think some brands are still a bit scared by social media and online? Is PR really doing enough to convince them it’s a good thing?

We’re very firmly crossing a tipping point now in that respect – social media is more mainstream but it’s definitely going to be a generational thing. I’m lucky in that I was an early adopter and I find it interesting but for some people my age (and above) who don’t work in PR it is still a bit of a struggle to get their head around it all. There’s always this worry that being transparent will leave you open to big criticism, just look at British Gas last week or Ryan Air on Monday. But when it’s done right social media opens up so many good things. Digital moves so fast and it can be overwhelming but you have to be confident in your brand and what you’re trying to do and just get on with it.

Brand Vandals must have existed before the hashtag – have we always been this angry and, in some cases, sarcastic?

Of course! These conversations have always existed down the pub, in the living rooms and over garden fences but technology now enables people to complain directly to a company and let  lot more people know about it. Access to companies is, in theory, instant and it’s easy to strike a chord and cause panic in a social media team with just one tweet, facebook post, blog etc. Traditionally it was journalists, the gatekeepers of information, that brands had to keep from hearing these conversations – now it’s the whole world that can listen in.

You talk about using social media to build an online army of advocates – can it really be that simple?

Absolutely! Two recent examples show exactly how powerful brand advocates can be – British Gas and ASDA. When BG announced they were raising their prices by nearly 20% and then hosted a (supposedly) planned Twitter Q&A on the same day there were no brand advocates to be seen and the damage to the brand was done. When ASDA got called out for selling a Mental Patient costume for Halloween they immediately apologised and brand advocates turned the discussions from ‘I can’t believe they’re selling this’ to ‘Well done ASDA for apologising’. ASDA was able to turn a negative situation around far quicker than BG because of their loyal online following.

Are we in danger of reaching a point where brands pander to people online because they’re a little scared?

I don’t think so. Social media should be rooted in the values of an organisation and if you are confident in those values and know what you’re trying to achieve you can suggest a customer uses another company instead of you. It’s that realisation and acceptance that not everyone is going to like you!

Telling customers to go away? That is confident! So what can’t brand vandals do?

Creating a following that will rally for a cause online (either for or against a brand) is relatively easy to do. It’s taking that offline and affecting big change in the ‘real world’ that’s the struggle. We’re still scratching our heads about how to turn online influence into offline change 0 look how hard it is to organise a march on Parliament despite so many people being angry at the Government online.

Aha! So not all powerful then – mouthy and a bit lazy, maybe? Here’s one for you – if the internet is a war zone for brands what bits of it are No-Man’s Land and where the Hell is Switzerland?!

Ha! Good question! Well, traditionally brands have operated under a gloss and showed themselves in the best possible light but now in the digital age that’s No-Man’s Land. No company can operate that way and be successful anymore. Perception is now reality and with that comes very little control and nowhere to hide. So in that respect Switzerland is transparency. As long as your clear and upfront about what you do and why you do it you should be fine.

Internet Switzerland sounds like a magical place. Final one – we often wonder ( we muse A LOT) about what the next big change will be. Will there come a time when people/companies who have adopted social media freak out about the latest development?

That’s a great question! I think this social media generation is too full of intellectual curiosity to be phased by the next big thing, whatever it may be. Being open to technology is an attitude now, a state of mind. It’s such an exciting time for PR. With so much transparency now required from brands PR has a massive future that will see it embedded in every part of an organisation to help it become social.

PR taking over – now there’s a thought! Any last thoughts other than ‘buy the book’?

Nope, but do buy the book!

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves! #BrandVandals: blah blah reputation blah (let’s be honest, you’ll just use the hashtag) is out on 31st October available from Amazon and other tax-paying book sellers. We’re reviewing it next week for those who of you who haven’t decided whether to buy the book or heat your home (thanks BG!) – once you’ve finished you can always use it as kindling, providing it’s not the actual Kindle version. Although something tells us you’ll want to keep it.

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Written by Angharad

Angharad is a former radio journalist balancing a career in PR with an insatiable writing habit that spans more topics than she can count on her smaller-than-average hands. She's passionate about the media, women's rights and politics with a love of travel, culture, entertainment and all things lifestyle on the side. Interests include prolific online shopping (bit of a reputation in the office), musicals, dinosaurs (be honest, they're awesome) and tweeting anything and everything from @Welsh_PR

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