In the good old days–about 10 years ago–your workers could go to the grocery store wearing your company's T-shirt without a care in the world. No big deal if they happened to sample a few grapes in the produce section. Today, however, in this era of instant video, messaging and picture-taking, you could find an employee's free sampling efforts immediately broadcast to the world–and worst of all, your company logo goes along with those fast-finger activities.

Kathy Ziprik
Kathy Ziprik

We live in a sensationalized, everything-gets-covered society. What you'd never imagine would pass for news can suddenly be seen around the globe via video, cell phones, and cameras. The innocent snitching of a few grapes can be broadcast as "XYZ Supply employee goes on free food binge" before the worker's cart ever hits the checkout line.

Guaranteed, when you passed out your free company logo mugs, T-shirts and jackets at customer outings and employee events earlier this year, you never gave a second thought to what the people would be doing while wearing or using those items. Years ago you didn't have to worry just wanted to gain some awareness for your company and believed saturating the marketplace with logo products would help do the trick.

It's time to think again. While gaining positive logo exposure is still a great way to build brand awareness, nowadays you and your company name are more vulnerable to the activities of people receiving those items.

Imagine being e-mailed a YouTube video of a college co-ed who's wearing a hand-me-down T-shirt with your company logo on it during a wet T-shirt contest in Cancun. Consider how you'd react to TV footage of a baseball game in which a remodeler wearing your cap swears at and hits a guy who grabbed a foul ball the remodeler tried to catch.

Will customers stop shopping with you based on some distasteful pictures or videos where people are wearing your company logo? Not likely. However, such images can imprint themselves on people's minds and subtly impact their overall buying decisions.

If you don't use social media regularly, you might not be aware of this potential problem. But now that you do know, the answer isn't to stop giving away company-labeled products. Rather, it's to make sure you're prepared to respond–fast–to an occasional bad imaging situation.

And by fast, think Superman fast. Social media these days makes it possible for negative situations/photos/information to be spread in seconds. No dealer has the luxury of sitting back to "see what will happen" or waiting to find "if it will be a problem." As soon as you learn of a potential negative situation, drop everything and focus on it. Get a game plan together and make decisions on how to handle the problem.

Ideally, you will have done the prep work for that game plan well in advance by thinking through different scenarios and preparing company leaders to handle potential embarrassments. For those scenarios, develop "talking points"–bulleted, easy-to-remember information bites that deliver the key points you want the press and public to hear. Talking points help to both clarify your message and make sure that everyone in your company is saying the same thing about a given topic. And by "everyone," I'm particularly including the people who answer the phone, handle sales, and provide customer service.

Be upfront and "flex your reputation reflexes" in any situation that puts your company's image at risk. By responding quickly, you can help diffuse a questionable situation and retain your company's reputation ... even when a top customer's son ends up on YouTube drag-racing in a car whose sides are sporting your company's magnetic signs.

Kathy Ziprik has worked exclusively in public relations for the building products industry for nearly 20 years. Her clients include Simonton Windows, Therma-Tru, Fypon, DaVinci Roofscapes, and Superior Walls. E-mail: 828.890.8065.