In last week’s column, we took a look at the 21st-century definition of transparency for brands and how every brand is under incredible scrutiny in our 24/7 access world. Most of the watchdogging comes from the consumers who go from fan to foe in a single incident or misstep.

Organizations are being held to a very different standard today. When there’s a perception that they’re not being true to their brand promise, the situation can escalate in a hurry.

The world’s expectation seems reasonable on the surface. We live in a world where consumers expect brands to do as they say and actually honor their promises and values. It’s hard to argue with that expectation. We should hold ourselves to the same standard. But it is a black and white absolute in a gray world. We are bound to disappoint someone along the way, no matter how good our intentions. 

Where it gets more challenging is how consumers express their discontent today. They head to review sites, their social media channels, and wherever your company has an online presence. Most businesses have been on the receiving end of a disgruntled customer’s poison pen. But it rarely stops there. A single persistent detractor can quickly trigger a mob. Mob mentality can turn a spark into a burning inferno pretty quickly, especially when the consumers believe the brand is not being honest.

This can all happen in a flash, and that’s particularly problematic when there’s a misunderstanding or, as is often the case, they don’t know the whole story. How do you avoid this new and damaging trend?

Be very clear, internally and externally, about what you are promising: You want to make promises you believe in and can honor. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but the truth is, many marketing promises are either vague or hyperbole. You are going to be held to everything you say, so choose those words carefully and make sure your team understands what your promise means.

If you say “no questions asked” tied to your return policy, then guess what – you have to train your employees to promise. They need to manage both their verbal and nonverbal reactions, so they don’t make someone uncomfortable about their return. 

Acknowledge when you are struggling to keep your word: Sometimes we have to make business decisions that, on the surface, don’t align with our stated values or brand promise. Many companies try to downplay that very real struggle. Life isn’t black and white, and every business leader has faced making a decision that, no matter what you do, forces a compromise.

Transparency isn’t about platitudes or ideals. Your customers will appreciate you talking about having to make difficult decisions and the thoughtfulness that you brought to that challenge.

Create a community and earn their trust before you need it: If something happens and your brand is under scrutiny or attack, you want advocates who will rally around you. The time to build those allegiances is not when you need them. 

It’s easy to talk in absolutes and black and white ideals when we talk about marketing concepts. Transparency, by its nature, can’t live in ideals. We have to be transparent every day, including and especially on those challenging days when it’s tough to live by your values or honor your brand promise.

The best way to earn your audience’s trust is to truly be transparent. The less manufactured and polished, the better.