Throwing shade on the timeline: 4 golden rules of personal brand strategy

Social media storm

Social media storm

It’s a jungle out there, and there’s nowhere to hide. You’re going to have good days and bad days, and when everyone from your office frenemies to cabinet members is a tweet away, the chances of being drawn into brand-damaging conflict are high.

Here are some of the golden rules I like to apply to my own life as well as client strategies. I sometimes break them,

1. Own your dirt
The dustbin of history is overflowing with the careers of people who lied and got found out. If there’s dirt on you, or something that can be perceived as dirt, be the first to put it out there. It doesn’t need to be a press conference or a tell-all book – you just need enough so that when a critic has an “aha!” moment and thinks they’ve nailed you, you can quietly point out that said revelation has been in the public domain for years.

Nothing takes the wind out of a critic’s sails like the ability to say, in response to an awkward question: “Yes? And your point is?”

2. Control your own narrative
The biggest mistake any brand can make (and that includes personal brands) is to allow your critics to shape your narrative. This is one of the most important reasons to have a presence in social media, because it allows you, the individual, to put out your message in your own words.

But what do you do when somebody insults you or makes accusations? This can so easily break out into outright twarring, and nobody wants that. I always assess the credibility of a critic before responding to trolling. Some trolls can safely be blocked, but others can inflict real damage if you step back and allow them to do all the talking. Two months ago, I was accused of being a racist by a government spokesperson with 20,000 followers after commenting on Zelda La Grange. I responded calmly, had an offline tantrum, gave the issue some thought, and tweeted my accuser the following day to tell him that I’d reassessed my viewpoint and that he was right.

Very few people admit publicly to being wrong, and this in itself can be a powerful way to shape perceptions.

3. Attack with caution
If you throw shade on someone, can you be sure that it won’t splash back on you? (Hint: usually you can’t.) If your allegations are untrue, the following may happen:

  • you could get sued (there are lawyers out there who would love to use you as a test case)
  • you give your target an excuse to correct the misperception without looking boastful (having been on the receiving end of this, it’s very handy)
  • you immediately look like a bully, and your target is recast as a victim

Woolworths is the best example of what happens when a company perceived to be a bully is then attacked. After the Frankies debacle came along the halaal hot cross buns, and suddenly everyone who’d criticized Woolies was back firmly in the camp of the people who tempt us with Chuckles in the aisle of sin.

Don’t cast aspersions on a brand or a person unless you have a pretty good sense that there is substance to the allegations.

4. Negativity can be useful, so use it well
Finding excuses to talk about yourself or your brand is a real challenge on social media. Inserting yourself and your achievements into conversation almost invariably comes across as crass. But when a follower makes an accusation that is untrue, you have the perfect excuse to set the record straight.

I learned this during my time as a social media brand ambassador for a luxury car marque. A couple of followers criticised me for associating with something so ungreen, so naturally used the opportunity to spell out the ways in which the vehicle was more environmentally friendly than the 2005 RunX I used to drive. If I’d simply tweeted all the facts and figures about the SUV, I’d have sounded like a PR robot, but because I was responding to a question, talking about the car was justified.

A crisis handled decisively and transparently can have a positive impact on perceptions of a brand. (We learned this back in the dark ages before social media from Pick n Pay’s Sean Summers and the apparently poisoned chips which made headline news but later turned out to be an extortion plot.)

The added benefit is that the more dignified and calm you are in response to attacks or insults, the more likely it is that those watching will sympathise with you rather than the person attacking you.

Overall, the best strategy is to be yourself, provided that you are at least vaguely likeable. This is one of the best guides to behaving well both in real life and online that I’ve read in a while. You may not meet many people like this, but if you can be someone like this, you’ll have a whole lot less strategizing to do.



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