'Curiouser & Curiouser': Sports Direct, Wonderland and the breaking of old school

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice, "now I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!" - for a business story around company policies, contracts and corporate governance, the telescope of scrutiny has opened up pretty wide on Sports Direct.

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashely flashes the cash as he demonstrates the security checking procedures at his warehouse yesterday (pic credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sports Direct boss Mike Ashely flashes the cash as he demonstrates the security checking procedures at his warehouse yesterday (pic credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
As was the case with BHS, Apple and Deliveroo. Corporate news? Consumer? Reputation is not a fan of boundaries.

We are increasingly driven by curiosity, where values nudge alongside value as the driver of sales, where people can be arsed to Google what a brand or business is really about, and where any socially shared perception is swiftly a reality to deal with. 

So what do you do about it, and how you apply the Wonderland rules to cope with curiouser and curiouser audiences? 

Invest in glue 
Corporate reputation is not just a corp comms responsibility. HR, supply chain, customer service, community and brand are all accountable. In Sports Direct terms, your community referring to your base as the 'gulag' should have been a less-than-subtle sign of trouble brewing. Each story you tell needs to be multi-dimensional for all audiences in your mix, not just one at a time. New relationships, tools, and projects cross business will build a stronger platform.    
Open the windows 
Time to be loud, proud and transparent. Don’t hide the things you are proud of, but build a proactive corporate brand that bleeds into consumer spaces. McDonalds has been doing this well for years with behind-the-scenes corporate experiences for lifestyle bloggers, and Lidl's new cinema ads on Scottish beef provenance follow suit. Proactivity is the best form of defence when it comes to building corporate trust, and the creative routes to market are enticingly broad.
Ban the bland 
We've all seen the shallow corporate statements, which say nothing when a brand is in the spotlight. 
As a consumer, seeing this can be worse than saying nothing. Go human when in issues mode rather than robotic, and think colour and energy when on the front foot. Strong corporate beacons are borne from confidence and accessibility, not reticence.

Listen up 
Social media is brilliant for boosting egos and making people look at you. But it's even better as a corporate intelligence tool for discovering 'black gold' - for finding people you should listen to. It's about understanding discussions, and not just data. Stakeholder perceptions? Check. Emerging trends to pounce on? Absolutely. Issues early warning systems? Why would you not?    
Accept you are unpopular 
Every brand will have its haters. That's life. That’s the purpose of social media channels for some. Accept it. Prepare for it (the experience, not necessarily pre-defined messages), prepare for it again, and then go back through rules one to four.

Finding the best way through this space is of course rich for debate. Although accepting that the space has changed irrevocably isn't, as Sports Direct's initial commitment to change their model attests to.

This is increasingly the right time for translating what turns consumer heads towards challenges from over the corporate wall – important, of course, because there isn't really a wall anymore (unless you are talking about Calais or Mexico…)

As Alice said in Wonderland, "It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then."

Richard Medley is head of Francis, the corporate division of Frank PR

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