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Turning Chaos into Opportunity: Lessons in Building a Brand During a Crisis

Whether it’s a personal crisis, or a pandemic, these moments can be a breeding ground for creativity and growth.

January 1st, 2020, a new decade, new opportunities, and a clean slate that felt fresh and full of life.

Fast forward a few months, suddenly, the hopes, dreams, and goals we were committed to were placed on an indefinite hold. Our day-to-day existence came to a screeching halt. And so, the Coronavirus journey began.

Navigating personally and professionally through a crisis, especially one of global proportions, may seem overwhelming, but it can also be a tremendous opportunity for growth.

Below are personal anecdotes and important lessons I have learned during the most difficult times of my life that ultimately led to personal and professional success.

Lesson #1: Learning to Pivot

The economic crash of 2008 was my first lesson in how to deal with a professional crisis.

My husband and I were re-financing our home in the hills above Malibu, which surprisingly, we were able to accomplish in the middle of a real estate crisis.

However, I owned a small brick and mortar at the time that was not faring so well as retail stores were taking a huge hit not only from a failing economy, but also because fashion bloggers had been successfully driving business online, and away from mom and pop retailers like myself.

Vintage one-of-a-kind denim from the brick and mortar retail store I closed during the financial crash that started in 2008.

Although I was well positioned in terms of my location being in a high profile tourist destination and attracting global press, unfortunately that was not enough to sustain my business during the recession. It was evident the 2008 crash was the beginning of the end for retail. It was time to change my business strategy.

First order of business was to unload my overhead. Once I completed that monumental task, I focused on how best to meet the needs of businesses in my industry. Online fashion was the future and I wanted to use my knowledge and skill set in this rapidly changing economic landscape.

I prioritized accordingly, immersing myself in learning web design, graphics and creating visually appealing content. These new creative skills allowed me to use my fashion knowledge in a new, inventive and profitable way.

Once I mastered those skills, I launched a consulting business offering my services to small and medium sized brands. The goal was to guide my clients through the design process, put together marketing strategies to help them build a robust customer base, and engage followers on social media.

I was also preparing myself for the future by creating a digital arsenal which has grown to include a team of developers who are always on the cutting edge of new technology.

The Takeaway: Adjust your skill set or business to meet current demands and anticipate long-term needs to safeguard yourself from a future financial crisis. If you need guidance on how to pivot, ask for a referral and hire a professional.

Lesson #2 : Not all crises are created equal

A few years later, well into economic recovery after the 2008 crash, I was approached by local activists involved in a very high-profile environmental battle in Malibu. The activists (also personal friends of mine) were aware of my online marketing skills, and were desperate for help distributing accurate, scientific information about this controversial project.

Although a little reluctant to get involved in an issue not in my wheelhouse, I was fascinated by environmental activism and willing to educate myself.

Using what I learned in the 2008 crash, I pivoted my business once again, and intuitively took the plunge into new unchartered waters.

The tragic story that unfolded after our efforts to educate the community regarding the Malibu Lagoon Project was told in Smithsonian Magazine.

Once I agreed to join the project, I focused on information gathering. I interviewed biologists and experts in the field, and as soon as I was armed with enough essential information, I applied my messaging and marketing skills to design a website specifically for the public to access information about the project. The community was actively engaged in the battle, and any fact-based information was well received. We posted consistently on all social media channels, and our audience began to grow rapidly. Before we knew it, we became a media authority on this high-profile project.

Our efforts also attracted mainstream media, building our database extensively for the project, and future projects to come.

The Takeaway: Become an authority in your chosen field. Post accurately and consistently. As a result, your audience will build organically and with verifiable information, you will build trust. When you build trust, you will build business.

Lesson #3: From Concept to Creation

The lessons learned in the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project were very productive in terms of brand building, however, it had painful consequences.

One of the activists in the group suffered from bi-polar disorder and depression, and a local contingent who opposed the project created discord in the community. The pressure became too much for her to handle. The day the project was scheduled to begin, she suffered a bi-polar episode and committed suicide.

As a result, drama and gossip ensued taking its toll on our group, and divided our tight knit community.

Although devastated by this event, I refused to allow this tragedy to ruin the progress made by so many committed individuals. The project was environmentally successful, and it would be a shame to waste that success especially when it led to one of our own taking her life.

Using my newly developed media skills, I decided to take control of the narrative. I saw a void that needed to be filled locally and felt it was a perfect opportunity to create a publication showcasing the authenticMalibu lifestyle.

The first issue was a big success. We told powerful stories about the true heroes of our community, not the garden variety celebrity stories you see published in mainstream magazines. Our branding was strategic. We focused only on brands that reflected our core values, and in turn, those brands supported us. 90265 Magazine’s luxurious paper stock made it a keepsake for years to come, and as the publication grew in popularity it became a tremendous asset to support my branding and marketing clients.

The Takeaway: Take control of your own narrative. It’s the most vital part of reputation management. Whether it’s personal or business, the right messaging and distribution can turn a tragic situation into an inspirational experience.

90265 Magazine print version on newsstands. 

Lesson #4: Follow the Flow

As a newly established publishing company in yet another continuously evolving landscape (specifically the rise of lifestyle websites and the decline of print media), I encountered a growing area of conflict; what advertisers would pay for print ads, versus what they would pay for online marketing. The mindset of advertisers had not quite grasped the intangible values of internet exposure.

Twelve issues later, and with more and more readers transitioning to online platforms, I was also craving more exciting, educational, and meaningful stories that affected our community and motivated to push for much needed positive change in local government.

That’s when I decided to pivot again, and added a second publication to focus more on local news, politics and the environment.

The Local Malibu , an activist journalism platform launched in October, 2014. The tabloid size (16″x10″), bright white stock, full color publication was the new age, edgy version of the traditional newspaper which was still a very powerful tool in print.

After the loss of Ann Sobel, the original owner of the Surfside News, and the pioneer of activist journalism and investigative reporting in our area, there was yet another gap that desperately needed to be filled in local media.

Our experience with previous environmental projects, from collecting and reporting data, to our online messaging strategy, and the success of 90265 Magazine made for a seamless transition to reporting fact-based news.

The Local Malibu heavily focused on preservation and supporting the majority voter block. The other two local newspapers took the opposite stance, supporting the interests of politicians and developers (in other words, “show me the money”).

Our publication rallied behind, and won two successful ballot measures. Shortly after, we were the only publication supporting the Team Malibuslate, successfully seating not one, but three City Council members in the 2016 election, putting our publication on top in terms of influence in our community.

Council member Rick Mullen on the cover of The Local Malibu shortly after winning the election. Mullen was the top vote-getter in the race with the 2016 election attracting a historical turn-out at the polls.

A year and a half later, on June 22, 2018, an unprecedented tragedy occurred in our area. A young father was shot to death while camping with his two young daughters at Malibu Creek State Park. This sent shockwaves through our high-profile community, and quickly became a global news story.

Unsure of how to handle the story (reporting on murders was not my forte), I was laying in my bed at 11 p.m. that night when I received a private message on The Local Malibu Facebook page. A resident informed me a Tesla was shot at as it drove through Malibu Canyon, four days before the murder, at the same time, just outside Malibu Creek State Park. The details of the incident led me to believe there was a potential sniper on the loose. Fearing for the safety of my community, it prompted me to post a public safety message immediately on our Facebook page. Within a few hours of posting, multiple victims came out on that thread exposing the two-year law enforcement cover-up in the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings.

Uncovering that information led to more tips and allowed me to continue investigating the shootings. Ultimately, exposing the cover-up led to the widow filing a $90 million lawsuit against the state, and in turn gave me tremendous credibility in my new field.

On the business side, reporting on the shootings taught me a lot about our web traffic (which skyrocketed as the story unfolded). I was able to thoroughly analyze my analytics, prepare new strategies, which in turn was of great benefit to my branding and marketing clients who have always remained my bread and butter.

My PR rolodex quickly expanded due to the global exposure of this tragic event, as did developing influential relationships. During the shootings I met Alex Villanueva, who was running for Sheriff of L.A. County. Villanueva achieved the impossible with a grass roots campaign in the 2018 election, becoming the first Democratic Sheriff in over 150 years. The relationship I continue to have with Sheriff Villanueva has been extremely effective in creating a more cohesive, trusting relationship with the Sheriff’s Department in our community, as well as many other positive outcomes involving law enforcement.

January 2020 at Sheriff Villanueva’s office at the Hall of Justice. From left, UnderSheriff Tim Murakami, myself and Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The experience also led to an invaluable opportunity developing a docu-series about the shootings for a major network.

Many may argue these opportunities came because I was in “the right place at the right time”, but it is really about trusting your instinct no matter what the circumstances. I could have very easily chosen not to pursue the story and stick to the reporting on the environment and politics. I trusted my instincts and went for it. That decision literally changed my life — and my career.

The Takeaway: Trusting your intuition is vital when considering a new career path — even in the midst of chaos and tragedy. If it feels right, you will find the tools, or the tools will find you.

Lesson #5: Knowledge is Power

A few months later, the Woolsey Fire ravaged through the Malibu and surrounding communities.

I evacuated to my mother’s home close to LAX and watched helplessly as my friends and neighbors posted apocalyptic scenarios on social media.

While scouring newsfeeds for more in-depth information on the damage in our community and unsure of what to do, fate stepped in. My good friend Tricia called me. She had just landed at LAX returning from a trip to London and was staying at a hotel a block away. We immediately planned to head back at sunrise. Shortly after, Dana Goodyear, a journalist with The New Yorker Magazine also contacted me and asked if I was headed back to Malibu the next morning. I told her yes and she asked if she could join us. At that moment, our destiny was determined.

On our way back to Malibu the next morning, the smell of smoke intensified as we traveled through each barricade on PCH. The damage was overwhelming as we got closer to Ground Zero (the west end of Malibu), yet I could see a number of inconsistencies posted online that needed to be corrected immediately.

I handed the phone to Tricia and we began to post multiple, detailed updates in a calm and measured fashion, correcting inaccuracies. With each update, we provided emergency information, resources, and organized disaster relief throughout the day and night until residents were allowed back in their homes close to two weeks later.

Returning to the scene and reporting accurate detailed information, hard to come by for mainstream media, built our publication a tremendous following. We amassed over 1 million hits, over multiple platforms, with 406,300 impressions on The Local Malibu Facebook page alone.

These were priceless, hard-earned milestones in building a brand that under normal circumstances would have required a significant financial investment. I provided information no one else could, I created a niche and continue to.

I can confidently say 2018 was the most traumatic, yet, biggest growth year for myself personally, and for my career, leading to multiple, lucrative, consulting deals based on my perseverance in the midst of tragedy.

The Takeaway: Chaos is often an opportunity to go deep within and discover what you are most passionate about.

During each of these life changing events, I discovered my passion is empowering people with knowledge that will enrich their lives.

Now is the time to discover yours.

Cece Woods is a Brand Strategist, Editor in Chief and Activist living in Malibu, CA.

Cece Woods

The Current Report Editor in Chief Cece Woods started The Local Malibu, an activism based platform in 2014. The publication was instrumental in the success of two ballot measures, and seating three Malibu City Councilmen in 2016. During the summer of 2018, Woods exposed the law enforcement cover-up in the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings, and a few short months later provided the most comprehensive local news coverage during the Woolsey Fire attracting over 1 million hits across her social media platforms. Woods also founded 90265 Magazine, the authentic Malibu lifestyle publication.

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