Defending Your Personal Brand Online – When Should You Respond?

By Rich Campbell and Dorie Clark

Personal branding is increasingly important in the professional environment, whether you’re an entrepreneur, corporate middle manager or a student approaching graduation. But one area that many don’t consider when communicating their brand online is how to respond to negative feedback that disrupts your carefully-crafted brand message.

A mini-case study on this topic is the recent furor around the release of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest tome, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  Gladwell, who build a brand around his ability to weave scientific studies into narratives that explain macro-level societal trends, has come under attack from Union College psychology professor Christopher Chabris. The crux of Chabris’ criticism is that Gladwell is using science to advance his preferred narratives, not developing narratives based on the underlying science.

Criticisms are an inherent part of any author’s life.  And as you grow to the mega-star level Gladwell has in the last decade, you become more of a lightning rod.  In this instance, Gladwell fought back with an article questioning Chabris’ rationale and motives. One thing is certain: their feud has generated a lot of publicity.  A recent Google search for “Chabris Gladwell” produced 52,400 results.

So what’s the lesson to be learned? Would Chabris’ critique have gained as much notoriety if Gladwell had ignored it (at least publicly)?  Or was Gladwell correct in “defending” his brand against such an attack?

A study from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business indicates that bad publicity harms the reputation of established players, as you might expect. But it can actually help lesser-known figures, because it raises their brand awareness among the public. In short: Chabris had a lot more to gain from the exchange than Gladwell. Similarly, Sinead O’Connor’s recent feud with Miley Cyrus helped get her name back into the news, a boost for an artist whose popularity peaked more than two decades ago.

In politics (Dorie’s previous career), the practice of establishment players ignoring their opponents is known as the “Rose Garden Strategy,” referring to Presidents’ common tactic of signing popular bills on the White House lawn in order to “look presidential” while their opponents diminish their own stature by endlessly carping. Of course, there’s a risk in ignoring the criticism: if you don’t defend yourself, people may ultimately begin to believe your opponent’s statements are true.

It’s a difficult balance to determine when to remain silent and when to dig in and fight back. (Rich has previously written about sports reporter Darren Rovell and his unusual strategy of engaging critics – even accepting a one-on-one basketball competition with one of them. Rovell lost badly, but felt it was a branding victory because he showed he could take the taunts).

As a branding and communications consultant, Dorie recommends that her clients ask themselves these three questions if they come under fire from critics:

  • Is it fact or opinion? If your critics have made a factual error (they’re criticizing your depiction of Irish life when your book was actually set in Scotland, or they claim unemployment rose 2% on your watch when it actually decreased), you can and should correct those errors. You can overcome the criticism if the facts are on your side. However, if you’re debating a matter of opinion, you’re likely to enter a morass: no one can ever win that argument.
  • Who’s the best messenger? If you’re dealing with a critic, let’s be honest: it’s usually not you. Getting into a mano-a-mano exchange is rarely helpful; it’s far better to recruit a supporter or advocate to clarify matters. Could Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, have recruited an academic to dispute Chabris’ critique on his behalf?
  • Who has the most to lose? If you’re the establishment player, think hard before engaging. You may decide it’s necessary and appropriate, but understand that the other party often benefits from your response, given that it will spotlight their message and raise their visibility.

What are your strategies for defending your personal brand online?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.

Rich Campbell, Ph. D., is an Associate Professor in the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University. You can follow him on Twitter.