images8I love it when PR folks coin a catchy phrase that succinctly captures a cultural phenomenon. “Badvocates,” attributed to Elizabeth Rizzo at Weber Shandwick, are people who stand on a virtual soapbox to criticize or detract from companies, brands or products. Simply put, they’re brand bashers. And left unchecked, they can unravel your company’s reputation — and bottom line — quicker than a jaguar in a yarn shop.

Thanks to the pervasiveness of the Internet, social media and smart phones, consumers can voice their good and bad opinions about your company with just the touch of a button. And badvocates are passionate naysayers. They like to voice their criticisms early and often to whoever will listen. According to Weber Shandwick, badvocates represent 20 percent of adults online worldwide. And each badvocate reaches an average of 14 people. Yikes.

When people are unhappy, they vent their anger quickly — and most often, they vent online. Badvocates’ brand-bashing can get circulated around the globe within minutes. If your company is not actively listening to what’s being said online, you may be caught off guard by the media, customers and competitors who won’t hesitate to escalate the brand-bashing. Monitoring the online conversation can be educational as well. Badvocates often have legitimate gripes that if addressed, can help you strengthen your product line and maybe even turn that naysayer into a brand advocate.

Critics Versus Activists

Badvocates typically fall into two primary categories:

  1. Critics — individuals motivated to critique through a negative personal experience such as poor customer service, a faulty product or a philosophical dispute with corporate practices
  2. Activists — individual spokespeople who are part of a larger, well-organized group with a mission to protest an individual company or industry’s activities.

Critics typically do their brand-bashing online and the dialogue can escalate quickly thanks to social media, YouTube and other outlets. Activists typically employ a wide variety of media avenues and tickets to garner as much publicity, exposure and negative impact as possible. Both types of Badvocates can quickly decimate a brand and a company’s reputation.

Respond or Ignore?

Companies under attack typically want to respond, explain, strike back or simply tell their side of the story. Responding quickly to Badvocates is often the best strategy. But not always. Unfortunately, there are no absolutes in reputation and crisis management. How to respond depends on who is attacking you, how much traction they are getting online and offline and how long you anticipate the story will stay alive. Responding in a thoughtful and strategic manner can help mitigate impacts and in the best instances, can initiate positive dialogue with your Badvocates. However, if the critique has a short shelf life, responding can backfire by giving a smoldering issue the oxygen it needs to ignite into a full-blown firestorm.  A crisis management expert can guide you on how best to manage and respond to Badvocates — don’t make the mistake of handling these reputation-crippling challenges on your own.

Get Prepared

The bad news about Badvocates is that they often have the ability to quickly dominate the conversation online and in mainstream media. Why? Because the media loves conflict and Badvocates are more proactive, passionate and prolific than their corporate targets. To mitigate badvocates’ impact, corporate America needs to step up communication efforts and prepare for disaster rather than wait for it to strike. Paul Barsch wrote a great blog for Marketing Profs in which he bemoans that too many businesses shelve or discard “’soft stuff’ such as brand management, press relations, crisis communications and the like . . . in favor of “just-in-time” strategies.”

The problem with the just-in-time approach is that it’s just too late. Restoring a reputation is significantly more difficult, expensive and time-consuming than protecting one. To make sure your business is well protected from the badvocates, consider launching a reputation “wellness” campaign. When it comes to reputation management, an ounce of prevention is worth at least a pound of cure.