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Being a ‘Tough to Love’ Brand in Social Media, an Interview with Gerry McCusker


Interviewer: Tim Martin, October 2014.  Episode #21 from the NET:101 podcast.


Podcast Transcript


TIM: Hello and welcome to the show. With me today I have Gerry McCusker, who is the founder of EngageORM. Gerry’s probably one of the leading specialists in online reputation management across Australia and New Zealand. Welcome, Gerry.


GERRY: Thanks, Tim.


TIM: Now, fascinating blog post I read of yours the other day, making that distinction – I hadn’t really thought of it in these terms before, between what you called, in inverted comma, is a “government brand” as opposed to a “love brand” within social. Can you explain that?


GERRY: More broadly, I’m not just targeting government, but what I’ve been doing through the work that we’ve been doing with clients, Tim, is understanding that there are love brands and love marks – which I remember probably years and years ago, searching and searching all about the concept of love marks. A lot of the times it’s consulting that we’ve been doing with what I would call tough to love brands, TTL brands.

I was just moved to look at the different engagement setup, because most of the times when I go to conferences and I’m invited to speak on panels, the models about social media engagement are far too rosy for my thinking. We see a lot of big presentations by flashy tech companies or lifestyle brands or sexy organizations or celebrities, and they talk about how easy it is to harness the power of social media.

The difference with what I would call tough to love brands is that they struggle to develop and keep social media friendships that are meaningful and will return on investment to the organization. The cool fact, and the thing I’ve identified, is that oftentimes their relationships tend to be adversarial.

So the point I would make is that tough to love brands, their DNA, the PR baggage, means that they may never, ever become love marks, and as such the niche of the relationship and the conversations that they’re going to have through digital and social media is almost prejudiced from the start.


TIM: Does that mean that they shouldn’t be in that space, or they just need to take a different tack?


GERRY: Of course, I think we have to pay attention to the space. There is no doubt of the power of social media to inform, influence, prejudice, and shape the way an issue trends. But I think that the idea that the tough to love brands who have this reputational DNA can cozy up to online stakeholders and try and be cool or really, really conversational with great ease and in a way that’s convincing, we need to scratch that. There’s a different position, there’s a different territory that they can occupy.

And I think that when tough to love brands are more honest and able to self-reflect, saying “Hold on, this is who we are, this is what we’re likely to get when we’re good at this space,” it’s quality information to help them shape and form an engagement strategy that’s actually going to [inaudible 00:03:46].


TIM: Give us a couple of examples of Australian tough to love brands.


GERRY: I won’t name names or [inaudible 00:03:57] the innocent, but I think we can broadly categorize it as those kind of agencies whose operational arena is enforcement, legislation, policing – and I want to talk about that as an exception, too, Tim – prohibition. All the organizations which have got that levy-based, impulse-driven, monitoring- or regulation-based operational arena very easily fall into the basket of tough to love organizations and tough to love brands.

You can pick your own favorites. I’m sure that you’ve engaged with such an organization and found that your prime engagement is that you suspect that they’re going to stomp on you, they’re going to curb your freedoms, they’re going to make it difficult for you, they’re going to penalize or punish you in some way.


TIM: Am I allowed to name names, or we just don’t need to go there?


GERRY: It’s your show.


TIM: It’s my show. For example – and this is just one that randomly comes to mind – a tax department, the ATO. I see posts and so forth, and I understand that they want to be in the space and do good things, but is this an example of a tough to love brand? I mean, my empathy with the tax department is probably to the point that I have to pay my taxes, and that’s something that I don’t look forward to doing necessarily. Is that a good example?


GERRY: It would easily fall into the tough to love brand category, because nobody likes to lose money or be penalized. But in reality, it’s about the baggage. I think it’s a good thing that we’ve got a tax department. The thing that’s probably missing is about how they shape the narrative.

We spoke yesterday at a session up at – the session that you referred to at the National Press Club in Canberra, and we spoke about organizations – and that organization was mentioned as possibly a tough to love brand. Yet somebody else mentioned and asked me, are the police a tough to love brand? They enforce, they can penalize, they can prohibit.

But there’s been an interest in the way that they story-tell now. Police organizations are becoming much more deft and much more nimble, because they realize they have got an inherent hero narrative. When we see TV stations, we’ve got Gold Coast Cops and we’ve got the original cop story from America, the show, and we’ve got border patrol and we’ve got all these things. The narrative around enforcement and prohibiting people and tracking them down is a good one.

And the ATO shares a lot of those qualities. The ATO helped to get on top of tax cheats and frauds and evaders. Yet they don’t really tell that story. They haven’t until now been able to tell that story very well, to profile it in more of a hero light.

I would suggest to you that whether it’s the Queensland police or what we’re seeing with this TV show, the Gold Coast Cops, we’re profiling prohibition and policing in a way that’s actually kind of – there’s a glamorous narrative to it, Tim. So this is where the opportunity for even a tough to love brand, if they can find their social narrative thread, then there’s a chance that they can turn around.

If you ask me can they ever become pure love brands, man, it’s much harder to say that that can happen. But social media gives them all these great storytelling options. How do they translate what they do into compelling online narrative? That’s the space that you and I should be helping the tough to love brands explore.


TIM: Because there seems to be a tendency for tough to love brands, or even the love brands, to go into marketing and sales mode.


GERRY: I don’t know it can ultimately – I’m a bit too [inaudible 00:08:24] to think that at the end of the day, it’s not all about sales. Whether it’s – I don’t mean pure transactional and e-commerce sales, but it’s about – even a lot of what we do is around preparing for crisis and emergency response. Probably at that stage, I still think in terms of how do we sell the message, or how do we make sure that we saturate key messages so that it helps people respond to distaste scenarios?


The [inaudible 00:08:56] have got to be there. I don’t know if sales – sales may be a prejudicial word, but we still have to talk about there has to be a consequence or an outcome. Maybe we should frame it more in terms of outcomes. But I agree with you, Tim; I think a lot of organizations swing into almost a pure marketing mindset, but the focus of what I’m trying to say is really, if your reputation is trashed, or if you don’t look after your reputational assets, and whether you’re an easy to love brand or a tough to love brand, it becomes much harder to transact in the future.

I guess when I boil it down, it’s managing online commentary or engaging with online commentary issues is absolutely critical and crucial for avoiding mainstream media, heritage media, or old school PR disasters. And that, again, is where I think organizations are not paying enough attention.


TIM: How do you measure success in that space? I mean, traditionally we could’ve said “We got some airtime on a news program or we got some columns in a newspaper.” But what’s the measurement in terms of doing well in this space around engagement, telling those stories or those narratives?


GERRY: I guess it’s quite broad, and some of the metrics that you would use – I think it’s safer to say, for me, let’s say we’re talking about an issues-rich situation which is quite complex. Obviously it’s really hard to extrapolate a like or a share or a follow or a re-tweet to a change in perceptions.

But in that scenario that you’re alluding to, I think that content analysis is quite telling. Because if we see the nature of posts and what’s being said around posts, even if it’s from our detractors or activists or online stakeholders, is beginning to soften or show an understanding or an awareness of a different perspective, that could be a valid thing.

Again, I can’t prescribe a specific metric, but I think that oftentimes it’s not [inaudible 00:11:17]; it’s content analysis. What’s being said by people? Are they softening the stance in the way that they’re posting or commenting or expressing in relation to the content that we’re engaging with?


TIM: Is this giving rise to a greater emphasis on analysis, whether that be quantitative or qualitative, these days as opposed to vanity metrics such as the number of likes or shares?


GERRY: I think it’s really good that you put the distinction in there. These vanity metrics that you mentioned I think is a great point, because we’re seeing a lot of people who, because they’re coming again, to your point, who are coming from this marketing mindset that fans, followers, likes, shares, they’re like “These are the stats that we can evaluate the success of the campaign” – from a reputational point of view, Tim, a like has no traction. It has little substance or meaning from a reputational point of view.

However, when we do look at content analysis and we can see that people are beginning to understand or re-quote some of the terms or framing that we feel is important for an issue, I suggest that we’ve got a deeper – we’re seeing almost an expression on a social media channel that is suggesting almost an attitudinal or a behavioral response or shift, and that to me, from a purely reputational or a digital PR point of view, is much more informative than a fan, a follow, and a like.

I mean, a like – I think it was described beautifully by Scott Monty of Ford when I was over in L.A. at Social Media Week last year as a digital grant. Which was a lovely expression. It doesn’t mean “like.”


TIM: No. It’s called like, but it doesn’t –


GERRY: There’s no loyalty in it. It’s only a simple acknowledgment and the precursor to ongoing interaction.


TIM: Could it be said that publishing through social media, that idea – status updates and so forth – is really just the start of the process, and that if you’ve got good content, that’s going to act as a touchstone to get a reaction from your publics? As you say, to gauge the sentiment and how people are framing different things that you’re saying.


GERRY: I think that’s true, Tim, yeah. And in some ways, just as you said that, it makes me think almost of the craft of the sub-editor and the skill of the headline writer. Oftentimes we’ve seen a headline in traditional media, we’ll see headlines that draw us in and make us want to read more. And when we read more extensively, we understand the headline didn’t quite tell the story, but it certainly drew us in enough, it whetted our appetite to want to find out more.

Again, I suppose it’s about drafting narratives and becoming compelling storytellers. Again, you’ve just led me quite fortuitously to the area that I think that tough to love organizations or tough to love brands can occupy, which is that of a newsmaker. I think that’s a much more credible ground than a “I’m your social pal.”

When you flag a tough to love brand like ATO, my insight and the EngageORM insight, Tim, is that these kind of organizations can readily occupy a topic expert space rather than social pal space. “Hey, we’re going to cozy up to you. Yeah, we speak your language.” I think because of the reputational DNA for a lot of tough to loves, it’s so deeply entrenched that when they try to become somebody else or some other personality, it’s actually more jarring.

However, there is no doubt that, especially if we’re talking government organizations, they have staff who are very knowledgeable and anoraky, anoraky about their topic of expertise. The challenge for them is to say “Okay, how do we use our expertise to tell better stories that engage people? If people love us as a love brand, they can start to respect us as an expert on our topic.”

That’s a more compelling or authoritative space from which to try to occupy rather than “Here, let’s try and get the volume of Facebook friends up to a certain amount, and we’ll show them we’re doing well in social.”


TIM: Yeah, unfortunately it’s a like button and not a respect button. I think a lot of us would rather take to the respect button more, and it would probably have more meaning for everybody if such a thing existed.


GERRY: Yeah. Again, it depends who creative organizations want to be. Having a good look at themselves as – we’ve consulted some divisions of government, and the level of self-awareness – when I challenge them and I say “Guys, you’re a tough to love brand,” they grudgingly nod their head, “Yeah, I guess.” So why are you trying to behave like a love brand? The engagement or the kind of connection that you’re going to get with your online stakeholders is almost framed from the start. To me, it’s part of your personality; you need to then develop strategies which acknowledge that. Don’t try to patronize or kid your audience that you’re something that you’re not.


TIM: I guess there’s a tendency for all new kids on the block to want to be liked and accepted. If you’re new to social media and you’re going to follow the lead of people that are there already, there’s almost a language or a dance that you feel that you’ve got to swing into. But as you say, to come from a position of authority and garner respect rather than like is probably going to serve you better in the medium-long run.


GERRY: I think that’s right. What was that great quote, Tim, I can’t remember who said it, “Just be yourself; everybody else is taken”?

I think if tough to love can say, “Look, we’re never going to be the flavor of the month. We’re not suddenly going to be Cristiano Ronaldo, we’re not going to become Manchester United or something like that just because we’ve got a Facebook profile,” if they can acknowledge that and say “However, we know a heck of a lot about our topic of expertise, and we’re going to become a straight-talking organization, and we’re going to start to embrace that as our engagement philosophy rather than ‘let’s see how many likes or friends or fans we can get,’” I think you’re in a much better position to develop a strategy that’s going to be at least connective to people who will acknowledge that you know your place; however, you’ve got value to add to that.

It’s an [inaudible 00:19:02]. You’ve talked about this in previous conversations that you and I have had. Organizations do well in social when they can genuinely add value. Not just by having conversations for the sake of it or updating status for the sake of it; when they look to personally add value to the intimate conversations which can take place on social media channels.


TIM: Yeah, I think there’s a default tendency to think that people aren’t interested in that sort of thing, that the mainstream is not interested. But in actual fact, there are niches and pockets of people that are wildly interested in their subject matter expertise. I don’t think that generally speaking, we’ve seen enough of it on social. It tends to be more the marketing fun fluff stuff rather than the nitty-gritty add-value stuff.


GERRY: I think that that point, Tim, and I think you and I are singing an awfully similar song in that again, it’s about people being on there to – when they’ve got their marketing perspective on, that it’s about the fluffy stuff, the lighter stuff, when a tough to love organization tries to do light and fluffy, it’s kind of meaningless. It’s hollow.

And the other thing I just wanted to say as well, Tim, is I’ve got a real strong feeling that organizations who are involved in this whole trying to make a social silo or a channel work, they almost pick the channel before they’ve thought of the communications task or the attitudinal task or the issues management challenge that they’re facing. Just some simple ones they face.

I think the other thing that seems to have fallen off the radar is the search – you and I have talked, very early – I’m talking maybe 4 or 5 years ago – we talked about the search engine optimization dynamic of social, which seems to have fallen slightly off the wagon and the topic for mainstream discussion. The optimization of content.

Because for me, for a tough to love organization, if we can be found at search level, then there’s a chance we can bring people into our conversations, the people who really want to engage with topics, but we have to be found at search level rather than channel level or silo level. I think that’s really important and probably under-discussed.


TIM: Yeah, completely. As you said, we were talking about that 4 or 5 years ago, and I think it’s as relevant today as it ever was. Even more so, if anything, because most people start the information journey through their search engine of choice, and for most people that’d be Google. So the power of content, to be resurfaced through search is profound.

Gerry, we shift gears –


GERRY: Tim, just to join up that thought, again, it takes me back to for a tough to love brand to think about making a channel or one particular silo – we heard this a lot yesterday, where we’re now seeing communicators at tough to love organizations who are under pressure from their exec teams or their line managers to now establish a Facebook profile or a Facebook page.

I’m like, why think of the – bring it back to motorcycles, because that’s like me saying “I’ve kind of got a journey in mind, but I’m definitely going to do it on a Harley.” If I’m going to cross the [inaudible 00:22:49], or if I’m going to [inaudible 00:22:52], picking the device or the delivery mechanism, i.e. the Harley, isn’t necessarily the bike to get me there. If you think about the journey and how good a navigator, and picking a channel just because everybody’s doing it – not everybody’s doing it. Even those who are in that space can’t do that well.

It’s about taking a step back, thinking “We’re tough to love. We’ve got expertise and specialization; how do we craft narratives around storytelling which gives value to our stakeholders, yet doesn’t expose us to any additional ridicule or risk?” That’s a strategic framing that a lot of organizations could perhaps consider.


TIM: So a blog, for example.


GERRY: Blogs can be effective for thought leadership. But again, where do you have that blog? I think this has become an interesting thing, and I’m really interested in this. Or let’s say we were to say “we’re going to have an online forum.” Where do we have it? Do we have it on a third party, offshore-hosted location? What’s the purpose of our blog? It’s to set our expertise and receive feedback and be able to let people share that kind of content.

As long as you can integrate perhaps a blog or you can consider integrating a blog into an existing corporate web structure, that’s an interesting proposition. Now that we’ve got a website, and it’s a huge house that lives over here, and we’ve got a small shack which is our blog, and it’s standalone and it lives independently. I would rather have everything in the shop, in the one location, Tim.

Can you imagine a store that’s like “We do everything relating to motorcycles,” and you say “I’d really like to put a pennant on the motorcycle.” “Oh, you need to go to the pennant shop.” “Where’s that?” “It’s five blocks away.” For anyone to have that interaction, and they’re in the shop, on your website, facilitate that. Because blogs are really about conversations.


TIM: Yes, yes.


GERRY: It’s conversation or interaction with people we’re looking for. How do we facilitate that within our own shop rather than pushing them to another area? Which takes up time and resources.


TIM: In that sense, if you did have some really good content sitting on your website and you’ve got a blog attached to that, then maybe to drive traffic from social back into the middle. Use Twitter or Facebook as support mechanisms to amplify the content sitting back at base.


GERRY: Absolutely. But then, you and I are talking on the same lines because we understand that it’s not picking the channel first and trying to find content to fill it. It’s thinking about the business or communications challenge and setting up a strategy where these channels or silos drive traffic to where the meaningful engagement is going to take place.

I hope that makes sense. It makes sense in my own head as I say it, Tim, you know?


TIM: When you talk about meaningful engagement, I think a lot of people overlook the power of the blog as being an interactive platform. That’s why it’s in the social media bucket, because you have these conversation threads which take place underneath the posts.


GERRY: Can I maybe assert that technically, the nature of blog replies, comments on a blog post that is thoughtful might tend to be – if we just do a sweeping generalization, which is always dangerous, Tim, but if we did a sweeping generalization, would you agree that the kind of response you might get to a well-thought-out blog piece is likely to be more considerate than the throwaway comment that you might get on a Facebook post? Or even just a hate comment from somebody who it takes them under 3 seconds just to throw an insult at your brand or your tough to love organization just because you posted something on Facebook.

Again, that’s another consideration for tough to love. What is the interactive nature of different channels? I think the kind of commentary that brands see on Facebook can be quite aggressive and very throw away. Would that kind of thing be equally applicable to, for example, a well-written blog? I suggest not.


TIM: I also find those –


I can’t guarantee not, Tim. I can’t guarantee not, but I suggest not.


TIM: Yeah, I agree. One of my issues with conversation threads, whether it be Facebook or Twitter, it’s ephemeral. They’ve got a shelf life of a couple of hours or a couple of days. But those conversation threads that form around blog posts last for months, if not years.


GERRY: Yeah. I think we can agree that in a lot of situations, channels such as Facebook and Twitter, especially a lot of the stuff that we do around emergency coms and emergency response, we know the power. So definitely they’re becoming mandatory in this suite of materials to inform stakeholders about what’s the status of a situation or what to do in the event of a crisis. So we know they’ve got their place.

But again, it brings us back to how – the stuff that you do, the stuff that I work on, is if we’ve taken a deep breath and worked on an engagement strategy – and strategic is “We’re going to get into this space so that we can support this aim or this goal, and we’re going to develop a plan of communications around that” rather than “We’re going to set up a channel and we’ll hopefully find enough content to keep it populated and hope that it doesn’t [inaudible 00:28:54] and the conversations don’t go nasty against us. Particularly for tough to love brands, it’s critical that that kind of pre-thinking takes place.


TIM: On the reputational measurement side of things, I know there’s a strong argument that you could put forward as to why you should be in social, because when you understand the dynamics and engagement philosophy and those sorts of ideas and they become second nature, in times of a crisis you’re more able to respond in a meaningful way rather than trying to hurriedly get something together because you need to.


GERRY: Yeah, absolutely, Tim. It’s that whole thing – you have to try and establish a rapport, a relationship prior to it. I liken it to football. Could any of us hope to – let’s say you and I get nine other mates and we all put on the same color football jersey and we get the chance to play a round, and we say, “We’ll give them the first half, we’ll give them five or six goals at the start, and we’ll try and catch up in the second half.” You cannot [inaudible 00:30:04] your team like that. They’ll destroy you.

And likewise with issues in crisis situations, you can’t hope, you think now the internet has gone live, next time respond appropriately and manage what’s happening in social media and use it for quality information dissemination. You can’t do it. You have to prepare first.

You and I, in our own niche, we have to have a strategy for how we’re going to contain Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale marauding down different wings, and if we just say okay, we’ll come up and we think we can probably do [inaudible 00:30:37] we’re kidding ourselves. It’s the same philosophy. We have to have the strategy, we have to have the formation.

We also have to have – and you’re strong in this area as well – technical skills. You need to train your people to give them the technical skills to be able to block Cristiano Ronaldo, to be able to intercept Gareth Bale, to be able to frustrate Pepe. We’ve got to do all this kind of stuff before the game. You can’t do it and hope to catch up and emerge as victors after the end of 90 minutes.


TIM: Yeah, I agree with you on that one. That’s fundamentally what I do as a business, is teach the skills. And not because I necessarily just enjoy doing it, but I think it’s such a crucial part of any online strategy, social or otherwise. You’ve got to have some technical ability to actually make stuff work.


GERRY: And that brings you back into your content. When organizations [inaudible 00:31:38], if organizations have taken breath, developed a strategy, thought about the way that they’re going to position and frame themselves, thought about the nature of the likely response that they’re going to get from the stakeholders, and then worked on their content creation skills and their content plan, I think that the likelihood of getting where they need to be, really shift the needle in terms of behaviors, attitudes, impressions, perceptions, is likely to be greater than if they say “Hey, we saw a great presentation from Adidas or a great presentation from Ford or Lady Gaga or Barack Obama and how they handle social media, and we’re going to do that stuff.” But you’re not those brands if you’re tough to love.


TIM: Yes. It’s also a case of earning your stripes. You’ve got to get out there and run round the field and beef yourself up. I mean, you can’t expect to run a 12-second 100 meters just straight out of the gate. You’ve got to work up to that point.


GERRY: See, I’ve got you thinking about football as well today, Tim. You’re going to be thinking of soccer formations, fitness and beefing up and preparing. It’s great to talk, and I really appreciate it.


TIM: Good. Normally at this point I say look, Gerry, let people know where they can find you. Everybody obviously – the website address and Twitter. But you’re not on Twitter.


GERRY: No. Somebody said to me, “How can you do the social media space if you’re not on Twitter?” For me, I’ll be fairly honest to anybody that wants to know: I’ve got quick thumbs and an alert mind, a cynical brain, and a big mouth. In that case, as somebody who wants to remain fairly impartial in the field of reputation management, Twitter would be a dangerous platform for me.

I think strategically, I made a decision that I don’t want to say the wrong thing in the wrong space about the wrong issue. Some people can raise their eyebrows, but again, it comes back to this is part of my strategic intent, Tim. Because there would be [inaudible 00:33:55] public relations disasters, you and your stakeholders would be laughing like [inaudible 00:34:02] if I created a public relations disaster via social media engagement.

So again, I’ve got to think about what do I want to be known for, what do I not want to do, what channel would be appropriate given that I understand myself and my weaknesses and my characteristics. And the business has survived quite nicely over the years; who would’ve known what it might’ve done if I had signed up? Who would’ve known what might’ve gone wrong had I signed up earlier?

So you can find me, Gerry McCusker, on LinkedIn. You can look at You can look at our videos and our YouTube channel. Again, it’s thinking about strategically, what is the appropriate channel for me, and what might be an area which I don’t want to occupy? I hope people can understand that.


TIM: Well, I certainly do. Gerry, thanks so much for your time. It’s been awhile between drinks, so I’ll make sure that we talk again before too long.


GERRY: Smashing, Tim. Thanks very much for the opportunity. I’ll catch you soon.


TIM: Okay, ciao.




Gerry McCusker on LinkedIn
EngageORM websiteblogYouTube and Flickr