How Ambassadors Can Help, or Create, a Crisis for your Brand

Some call them the good old days of crisis communications. Maybe they were for some, offering a place to hide or a quick news cycle to blow over. These good old days weren’t so long ago, and companies are still adjusting.

Consider this: ten years ago when a brand faced a challenge with a product or employee , a local news reporter might call, or show up with a camera crew, and ask the CEO a few hard questions. Most smart CEOs would publically acknowledge the issue and make a commitment to rectify the situation. Perhaps this exchange would translate into three to four minutes on the nightly news. By the next day, there’s a good chance it would be forgotten.

Fast forward to today. We live in an age in which social media and individual voices have tremendous influence on the information we receive, and the public conversations that take place about the issues we face. This includes conversation and public opinion when a brand stumbles, does harm, or is just perceived to have done something wrong. Dialogue can quickly snowball, and if the brand doesn’t act immediately, they risk losing control. Public outcry on social media can become overwhelming and last for weeks.

The Birth of the Brand Ambassador

To help manage reputation on social media, many brands have adopted Ambassador programs. Ambassadors can play a variety of roles, from trying out new products and providing feedback, showcasing products in use, living the brand lifestyle, and yes, helping to respond or defend a brand when negative feedback occurs.

But Ambassadors, while they can have great influence online, are human. They can make mistakes (big ones, at times) that can damage the brand. They’re not formally trained to speak on your behalf (that’s sort of the beauty of it). Chances are, the brand knows very little about their Ambassadors, other than the fact that they’re pimping the brand all the time.

What happens when an Ambassador does something really stupid?

I recently followed a story in which Coeur Brands, a producer of women’s cycling and triathlon gear, Eagle Bikes, and Nuun energy tabs were faced with an Ambassador mishap. A crisis arose when a Brand Ambassador, who was competing in an Ironman race, cut the course (meaning, she cheated), then went online to brag about her time, tagging the brands in her post.

What the Ambassador hadn’t anticipated was that she’d be caught. See, there’s a website called Marathon Investigations that looks at irregularities in finishing times at races, with a goal of catching cheaters. In this case there were recent race results that would suggest that it was very unlikely that this particular Brand Ambassador finished in the time she claimed. In addition, there were multiple timing stations that did not register her timing chip, which is quite rare at high quality events like Ironman. All of this evidence led to the conclusion that the Ambassador cut the course (cheated), and in the process associated the three brands with cheating.

And the brands responded – some better than others.

  • Coeur Brands – this company did the best job by immediately issuing a statement. While they didn’t name the person accused of cheating (staying out of the finger pointing game), they did announce that the person would no longer be a part of their Ambassador program and thanked the website for bringing it to their attention. But they didn’t stop there. They also offered the athlete resources to work through the challenges they faced, and in doing so, demonstrated that they viewed that person as more than just a promoter of their brand.
  • Eagle Bikes – they did respond, but not quite as well as Coeur. They simply acknowledged that the athlete was dropped from the Ambassador program.
  • Nuun – as of this writing, they have taken no action other than to say that they are still investigating the situation.

It’s interesting to see the vast differences in how each brand responded. Coeur’s statement was quite smart in that they encouraged the public not to attack the person, but rather to work towards ending issues like this. They acknowledged the situation, and took the high road. Eagle fell somewhere in the middle, and Nuun’s response really has yet to be seen. Will they address the issue, or simply hope it goes away? Addressing the issue once their investigation is complete and they make a final determination would be the smart way to manage their reputation.

What this all means for you

There’s a lot of buzz in the marketing world right now about influencer/brand ambassador programs. They can be very powerful for a brand, but they can also cause some headaches if not developed and managed properly:

  1. Be clear about the purpose of your program. How will it represent your brand, who are those best suited to speak on its behalf? How will you keep them engaged and authentic in their communications?
  2. If you develop a brand influencer/brand ambassador program, think through your crisis management strategy on the front end. As we’ve demonstrated above, Brand Ambassadors are human, and can do great things, or really dumb things.
  3. Keep tabs on your brand ambassadors beyond how much engagement their post gets. You need to look at them from a brand and human level. If you are only looking at engagement the breakup may not be pretty.

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