There was a time — not so long ago — when Enron executives were collectively known by their clients as “the smartest guys in the room.” There was a more-recent time when Volkswagen held an unimpeachable track record for emissions safety — until the so-called Dieselgate scandal came to light, sending its stock prices plummeting by 40 percent. There was even a time, at least before the release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” when Jay-Z thought his street cred and talents as a rapper would keep his personal brand untouchable.
If there’s one thing you can take away from all this, it’s that public opinion — conversation between media outlets and regular people in real time — can make or break the fate of even the most distinguished company or brand. It’s a lesson brands need to learn by pretty much tomorrow… or else.
The rise of social media — and the amplified voices of billions of Facebook and Twitter users — has evolved beyond the ability of PR departments to practice effective spin and damage control.
We’re living in an age where it basically doesn’t matter how fast you spin the story of your brand: Hundreds of millions of social media users are already there online to spin it for you — and they can spin it at a speed much faster than any press release you can dream up. A global study by McKinsey on “rebuilding corporate reputations” summarizes it nicely: “Many companies… rely primarily on small, central corporate-affairs departments that can’t monitor or examine diverse reputational threats with sufficient sophistication.”
Those kinds of practices need to change now more than ever, since no generation is more successful — and more frequent — in their use of social media than Gen Z. Indeed, a recent Cassandra Report finds that 40 percent of Gen Zers in the U.S. and 43 percent in the U.K. feel “more comfortable socializing online than… offline.” For centennials, virtual friendships that cross international date lines can be equal in importance to friendships made at school or around the neighborhood.
In the same vein, Gen Zers are far more likely than any other generation to purchase products and services based on what they hear from friends and peers and “influencers” on social media. They’re also more inclined to engage with brands they feel are capable of identifying with — and being responsive to — their personal views and values. As cited in an interview with Sara Spivey, CMO of BazaarVoice, “60 percent of Gen Zers support brands that take a stand on issues they believe in.” The same interview states that “40 percent of Gen Z say they give feedback, such as writing online reviews, ‘very often.’” Nor is that the half of it. A comprehensive study from the National Retail Federation reports “44 percent” of Gen Zers stating, that if given the opportunity, “they would like to submit ideas [to companies] for product design.”
To put it another way, Gen Zers are “the smartest kids on the internet.” Any PR department willing to dismiss this generation as “meddling kids” is meddling with the future of their company’s bottom line.
But on the positive flip side, there is plenty of opportunity for brands that are willing to take the extra steps to get to know Gen Z as individuals rather than as audience segments, brands that are willing to take the necessary and transparent actions and internal policy changes that meet Gen Z expectations for corporate responsibility, and brands willing to make PR into a constant two-way, real-time dialogue between company and Gen Z consumer. Those kinds of brands aren’t just “going to win the internet for today,” they’re going to become the visionary market-shapers of tomorrow.
To win the new generation’s trust, brands ought to rededicate themselves to taking user feedback (both positive and negative) into account when redesigning their products and services for the coming sales quarter or year. They should be bold enough to admit to their mistakes in public before those mistakes hit the news cycle, and earn the millionfold ire of Gen Z. And they shouldn’t be shy in their use of social media in amplifying the overall message coming from their PR department.
As Warren Buffet has restated (in various combinations of words) over his lifetime, "We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can't afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation." Not bad advice coming from a octogenarian about how to do smart business with the future inheritors of the world.