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How Activists And Populists Now Control Your Corporate Brand — And What You Can Do About It

From our colleague, Richard Levick:

“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

C-suite executives and board members often ask if their corporation needs a new Facebook strategy or a better way to communicate on Twitter. As pleased as I am that they’re exploring ways to institute change, I worry that they’re asking the wrong questions. It is as if they’re asking, “Do we need a telephone strategy?” What is happening is a loss of control of corporate messaging – in brands, litigation, crisis, regulation, and vis a vis activist investors. This is not about tactics.

We are in the early throes of a revolution every bit as significant as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Raising faster horses will not keep pace with the Model-T. Nor could a Model-T outrace a Saturn rocket. The game is well afoot; it demands a fundamental head-to-toe rethinking.

While there is much to admire about the evolution of sophisticated corporate brand communications, the same cannot be said for the risk side of corporations, from investor relations (IR) and enterprise risk management (ERM) to litigation communications and public affairs (PA). The Internet has not just revolutionized the way people receive information; it has transformed the way they share it, infusing them with a contagious sense of empowerment. They no longer need to be customers or shareholders to wage campaigns, let alone highly successful ones. And if they are investors, particularly activist investors, we are seeing the execution of thread-the-needle strategies so sophisticated that most companies don’t even recognize them as orchestrated campaigns before they surrender.

Arab Spring, Jasmine Summer, the approval of Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump all illustrate how conventional opinion leaders did not grasp how fundamentally their nations had changed. The same is true for corporations. No longer do they control the “brand” of a crisis, litigation, shareholder action, or other risks. This is increasingly the purview of activists’ investors, the plaintiffs’ bar, NGOs, and even regulators. The expertise and level of coordination among your adversaries is as formidable as it is frightening.

C-suite executives and board members must embrace Machiavellian change and new thinking, lest they want their company to fall victim to activist campaigns and the klieg lights that often follow them.

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