Quick: What is the first impression that comes to mind when you hear the word or see the name or logo of…

● Starbucks? Good coffee

● BMW? Upscale cars

● Fed-Ex? Overnight

● Intel? “Inside”

● Microsoft? Bill Gates

● Apple? Steve Jobs

● Oracle? Larry Ellison

● Exxon Mobil? Valdez

● Goldman Sachs? SEC suit

● BP? The “Oil Spill”

Now let’s ask another question: What is more vital to your client: brand management or crisis communications?

From my humble standpoint, the answer is both. They go hand-in-hand. If you employ conventional communications (e.g. message development, reporter pitches, briefings, advertising, events) and digital tools (social media, blogging, podcasting, webcasting) to build brand, then it follows that these same methods can destroy the best branding, literally in seconds.

Think of it this way, if the stock market can plunge 1,000 points in five minutes, then any carefully crafted brand can be obliterated just as fast in this age of instantaneous global communications and programmed machines.

The video of BP’s gushing oil leak quickly found its way onto YouTube as well as a wide variety of conventional broadcast media. Besides the usual conventional media coverage, the SEC’s suit against Goldman http://www.sec.gov/news/press/2010/2010-59.htm became an instant entry on the Wikipedia.org encyclopedia, the Wall Street Journal website as well as the online sites of major media organizations around the world.

So what does this question mean to executives in corporate suites, the leadership of trade associations and NGOs, political campaign managers, the administration of major universities or any other organization concerned about reputation and legacy? It means that when a brand-management firm is selected to build and enhance brand and top-of-mind recognition then that very same firm should also be adept at crisis management to instantaneously defend and protect the brand or at least to mitigate and contain the damage.

Brand formation and enhancement is a process that never ends and must be skillfully nurtured over the course of years, such as the “Intel Inside” campaign. The results are that PC and server-buying consumers are willing to shell out a premium to purchase a device with that Intel chip inside. But keep in mind that not everything has been perfect for the Intel brand as the company had to rally in 1994 (some may say belatedly) to combat the infamous Pentium flaw. This was a classic crisis communications exercise with all hands on deck. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_Corporation

We should contemplate that this escapade occurred prior to the true social media age, even though Internet usage was rapidly increasing. Could Intel have maintained its brand image as successfully in the face of the same Pentium flaw in this environment? Probably, but the company would have been required to respond in an even quicker fashion.

Crisis management is now, more-than-ever, a 24-7-365 gig. In the social-media age, successful brand defenses can be literally measured in minutes, not in days and weeks. Erroneous and nefarious Wikipedia entries need to be challenged quickly. Misleading media reports need to be immediately contested. Damaging blog posts need to be instantly rebutted.

Not all crisis communications efforts will be successful and not all positive brands will endure (e.g. If oil keeps leaking for 40 days and counting…). Nonetheless, the BP crisis communications team is in full battle station mode. http://www.bp.com/bodycopyarticle.do?categoryId=1&contentId=7052055

It is an open question whether the company’s reputation will ever be restored. Exxon will always be tied to the Valdez, even though that spill occurred more than two decades ago.

In most cases the best built and nurtured brands can be protected and enhanced, not only through brand management, but also by maintaining always present and alert crisis response teams, schooled in both conventional and digital media communications skills.

You really can’t separate brand building from crisis management.