London

I was recently asked by Strategic RISK Asia magazine for my thoughts on the reputational threats arising from employees use of personal social media accounts. I was glad to share my views as it is a topic that comes up regularly with clients and prospects. It is also one I explored in my book Managing Online Reputation.

Below is my full response to the journalist; the published article is here.

SusanAFowler_Uber

Which risks are created for firms from employees’ personal social media accounts?

Research consistently shows the top risk of social media to companies is damage to reputation. Rank-and-file employees may be seen as the most trusted sources of information on, and credible advocates for an organisation, yet the flip side is equally true: inappropriate, offensive, unethical or defamatory behaviour by those seen as the most authentic embodiment of a company has a nasty habit of spilling into the broader public domain and bringing their employer’s name and image into disrepute. 

Understandably, much of the focus concerning employee social media profiles is on internal threats. However, companies underestimate the external risks associated with these accounts, notably the increased risk of social engineering to access personal and/or company information, and greater opportunities for identity theft as a way to embarrass an individual – and perhaps their employer – in public.

Which types of posts from employees on personal social media accounts are the most damaging (political statements, unprofessional conduct, criticising the company etc.?)

The degree of damage depends on factors such as the nature of the post, the resonance of the topic, the credibility of the employee, whether the post is seen as accidental or deliberate, and the visibility and reputation of the company. It can be particularly damaging if it is seen to involve confidential or highly sensitive information, racist, sexist or discriminatory comments, the harassment or smearing of colleagues, customers or competitors, or which point to corporate hypocrisy or double standards – all of which will quickly attract negative coverage and can result in legal action, financial penalties, or lost sales.

Much hinges on the local political, social and media context. For example, political and social online activism across Asia is less widespread but certain topics are guaranteed to raise hackles and with civil society gaining ground and personal online activism on the rise, a loose statement can prove immensely damaging. And while smears are commonly regarded as below the belt in the west, in China and elsewhere there is a pervasive culture of trashing other individuals, companies and just about anything and everything else, many of which are surprisingly overt. Many die at birth, but others take on a life on a life of their own if the employee is trusted. It often also helps if the target is western.

How can firms mitigate these risks? Is employee training necessary, or does it need to go further into rules in contracts and disciplinary action?

The blurring of employees’ personal and professional lives online presents a tricky challenge for any organisation. While some companies continue to limit workplace access to social media, or to personal social media accounts during working hours, most accept that the great majority of their people have a personal presence on social media and understand it is unreasonable, and in some countries illegal, to clamp down on or to monitor personal online activities, particularly outside of working hours.

At one level, the risks of rogue social employees can be reduced by having strong values and culture, ensuring good behaviour across the corporate ecosystem, having a healthy working environment and fair compensation, and being open and honest whenever possible. Understanding that there is little to stop aggrieved employees sounding off on employer review sites such as Glassdoor, or taking to anonymous workplace communities like Blind, many companies are also strengthening employee reviews, complaint procedures, and putting in place more substantive and constructive exit interviews.

It is also essential to have strong social media governance, most obviously in the form of a corporate social media policy and a set of guidelines that spell out the expected parameters of online behaviour, highlights the link between poor personal behaviour and reputational damage on the company, and which threatens disciplinary action for breaches of policy. Many companies now refer to or embed these terms in employment, contractor and supplier contracts, and feature them in formal onboarding processes.

Of course, social media policies and guidelines must also be understood and lived, which is where training and communication come in. The challenge is often that these dry, rather formulaic policy documents have many grey areas. For example, is it appropriate for employees to talk about, let alone criticise, their employers’ activities on Facebook and, if so, when and how? Should they respond to third-party criticism of the company on their social profiles, or the open web? Are there any topics employees should expressly steer clear of, even in their personal lives? Should employees be talking up their company’s products on social media and, if so, how? In what circumstances (if any) should an employee use his employer as an online platform for his own personal activities and views? Smart organisations have training programmes that get into these awkward nooks and crannies, bring them alive, clearly spell out the dos and don’ts, and issue regular reminders.

Companies like L’Oreal have taken this educational approach a step further by hand-holding their people personally through the social media maze, showing them the merits and risks of different kinds of social media strategies, platforms and profiles, and teaching them how to segment users, limit access to their opinions and content, and keep their profiles secure. Corporate personal branding programmes not only help employees and their employers protect their reputations day-to-day, they also instil residual goodwill and help reduce the likelihood of alumni disparaging the company once they have moved on.

It would be great to know your thoughts on this necessarily messy and difficult topic. Is there anything you find particularly challenging about employees’ personal social media accounts? And what do you find are the best ways of minimising these risks?

Hanoi

I am delighted to confirm that my book Managing Online Reputation is now available in Vietnamese.

While the mainstream media in the country remain controlled by the government (to an even greater degree than China ), the huge local popularity of the internet and social media and a dwindling appetite for state TV is resulting in greater pressure for institutional accountability and transparency.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, Vietnamese organisations are not used to such scrutiny and have little experience managing issues, incidents or crises in full public view – something apparent in a series of botched responses by household name local institutions to allegations of pollution, market manipulation and so on.

As domestic scepticism broadens and deepens, and as Vietnamese companies start competing more aggressively in foreign markets, local business leaders will have to ensure their organisations are properly equipped to understand and handle a whole new set of customer and stakeholder needs, expectations and behaviours, and for the reputational jabs and jolts that come with the territory, including online.

Hence the need for a Vietnamese version of Managing Online Reputation.

Charlie Pownall - Managing Online Reputation (Alpha Books, 2016)

 

Published by Alpha Books, the country’s top business book publisher, Managing Online Reputation can be found in most reputable bookshops across Vietnam, and online.

London

Part 2 of an interview with a Chinese PR student on crisis communications and social media. Here is Part 1.

3. Does social media impact crisis communications in different ways in Asia versus the UK? Are there any characteristics exclusive to the UK?

In my experience social media can indeed impact crises differently in Asia, and much of this comes down to speed – parts of Asia are very highly networked – and the culture of the web, which can be immensely volatile, especially in a country like China. Compounding matters there’s the fact that customer and stakeholder opinion is evolving quickly across the region, not least concerning expectations about corporate good behaviour and transparency, while government attitudes towards foreign companies, in particular, can be hostile, and control of the internet notoriously uneven. These aspects – and plenty of others – require a close understanding of the context in which you are operating.

Operationally, the main difference is that Asian organisations tend to be more conservative, hierarchical and slow to make decisions, which can make the management of a crisis challenging. And where there is a culture of strong local political control, and a pliant local media, local companies may well have little experience of having to manage serious negative events in public and online – a notable example being Taiwan Formosa and the Vietnamese governments’ inept handling of a toxic spill earlier this year that ravaged hundreds of kilometers of coastline and damaged the livelihood of thousands of local Vietnamese fisherman.

Equally, some multinationals operating in Asia are reluctant to devolve crisis decision-making to their local businesses, resulting in precious time being lost when you need to respond quickly and appropriately at the start. And for the reasons pointed out above, foreign companies must be mindful of throwing the standard western crisis playbook at what may be a very different business, media, political and legal environment.

I’m not convinced there’s anything intrinsically unique about the nature of crisis communications in the UK – at least in a western context – other than perhaps the behaviour of the mainstream media, specifically the tabloid press, which can be very single-minded in their willingness to build up and then attack an organisation, and whose views tend to bleed quickly and deeply into the social web.

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory.

London

A resourceful Media and Public Relations student from China at a UK university recently asked me for my thoughts on crisis communications and social media for her dissertation. In the spirit of sharing, here’s the first part of my response – the second on how crisis communications differs in Asia and the west – will be posted shortly.

The questions have been edited for clarity:

1. To what degree is social media impacting crisis communications? How is it changing traditional crisis communications?

Social media has had a significant impact on crisis communications:

  • Most obviously, news and information travel much faster, meaning organisations need to track issues and potential crises more regularly and respond more quickly when something bad happens
  • There is much more misleading and false information to track and consider, some of which is deliberate
  • Online opinion tends to be very volatile and polarised during a crisis, making it difficult to know when and how to try to manage perceptions
  • The lifecycle of crises has become much more unpredictable with so much information constantly swirling online and getting picked up by the mainstream media, and the ease with which confidential information now leaks
  • Perhaps most important, the nature of the social web means people nowadays expect organisations to be open and responsive during a crisis – which may have profound implications for crisis strategy, important at a time when many large organisations are not trusted and when the facts are unclear when a crisis first breaks.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media on crisis communications strategy?

The main advantages are that, thanks to social media:

  • Organisations now have greater insight into what various different stakeholder groups think about them and behave towards them
  • Crisis strategy and messaging can be tested and revised more or less in real-time, rather than having to commission custom market research surveys
  • Relationships with stakeholders can be handled direct, bypassing ‘traditional’ gatekeepers such the mainstream media
  • Using video, photographs and other tools, it is now possible to communicate factually and, critically in a crisis, emotionally
  • You can involve more people more closely in an organisation’s recovery once the worst of a crisis is over using crowdsourcing and other web and social media-based techniques.

On the other hand, social media presents many strategic risks and operational challenges during a crisis. These include:

  • Organisations have to respond very fast while ensuring their messages are consistent across many channels
  • Then there’s the huge volume of comments and feedback to manage, while knowing what is important and what should be left alone
  • Online opinion and feedback may be skewed, inaccurate and not as insightful or nuanced as conventional market research
  • An analogue leadership team which does not understand digital/social media and can be very jumpy during a crisis, leading to poor decision-making
  • If social media is not treated seriously and strategically, the necessary procedures and skills may not be in place before and during a crisis.

 —

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory:

London

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Vietnam Investment Review (in Vietnamese).

That thousands of people took to the streets across Vietnam early May 2016 to protest the contamination of hundreds of kilometres of Ha Thinh province coastline was the culmination of a catalogue of errors by the alleged culprit – a Formosa Plastics steel plant – and the Vietnamese authorities, that inadvertently turned a serious incident into a major public crisis.

The spat also raises questions about how fit for purpose Hanoi and major companies in Vietnam are when it comes to managing disasters and crises.

When people first started complaining on Facebook about dead and rotting fish and shrimp in early April, Formosa Plastics initially said nothing and then denied wrong doing. Two weeks later a company PR official antagonised local fisherman by arguing the Vietnamese had to make a choice between catching and selling fish, or developing the steel industry.

Officials in Hanoi failed to make matters better by initially defending the company and then arguing there was no proof it was to blame and suggesting human discharge or ‘red tides’ of algae could be the problem, prompting local protesters to take to the streets and even to petition Barack Obama to launch an independent investigation. Vietnamese authorities were also found to be blocking Facebook and Instagram during the protests.

Perhaps Formosa Plastics and Hanoi were taken aback with good reason. After all, ordinary Vietnamese are little known for publicly opposing issues seen as detrimental to their interests and livelihoods, however controversial or potentially damaging they may be.

And thanks to highly controlled political, media and business environments, very few Vietnamese organisations have any experience of having to manage and defend their reputations in the open court of public opinion.

Yet one does not have to look far to see how the expectations and behaviours of citizens, consumers, local communities, activist groups and other stakeholder groups have been transformed by the internet and social media.

Even in China, any and all of these groups now regularly take to the social web to make their voices heard, galvanise support, raise funds and organise protests – virtual and physical. And they do so instantly and often in large numbers.

While China may have had considerable success limiting online chatter, institutions across the region are struggling to contain internet-based grassroots movements, despite the many tools and techniques available to block, limit or otherwise disrupt news, information and commentary.

With the accountability genie out of the bottle and with little way of stuffing it back in, how can governments and businesses better manage disasters and crises?

Fortunately, the strategies, tactics and techniques required to manage issues and crises in today’s flat, open, digital world are becoming steadily clearer. And while complaints, allegations and smoking guns frequently first manifest themselves online, the rules of how to deal with them as they escalate are not broadly similar to what they were before smartphones and Facebook took over.

Like for ‘traditional’ issues and crisis management, much comes down to good listening and having the ability to spot potential problems before they escalate into incidents or even crises, and the internal processes to be able to assess these issues quickly and thoroughly before identifying the appropriate response.

While there are many free tools that can help companies keep abreast of what’s being said about them and about issues relevant to them, there are also now a host of paid online and social media listening tools such as Synthesio, Meltwater or Vietnam’s Boomerang that enable companies to identify, track and analyse potential problems online in real-time.

Furthermore, the more sophisticated listening tools will send email or SMS alerts to team members when mentions of a given keyword or phrase hits a specified level, and/or turns from negative to very negative, enabling companies to hone in quickly on what really matters when it comes to assessment a problem: the motivation of the user, the credibility of the complaint or allegation, and the broader context in which it is being made.

Much also hinges on getting the response right, which can be challenging when everyone seems to be talking about the issue, it is quickly going viral, corporate leadership has gone missing and the scope for denying or ‘spinning’ a story is increasingly limited.

And in a medium that values emotion over facts, it is doubly important that the initial response to an escalating issue or a bone fide crisis gives the impression of openness and honesty, that it is being treated seriously and as a priority, and is crafted in a language and tone that ordinary people can understand, relate to and appreciate.

Had Formosa Plastics and the Vietnamese government responded quickly, honestly, constructively and empathetically to the pollution allegations in Ha Thinh province, they would far more likely have been given the benefit of the doubt. Instead, both found themselves caught in the headlights of searing public distrust and with little obvious place to turn for comfort.

UPDATE: Taiwan Formosa has admitted responsibility for the toxic spill, and will pay USD 500 million in compensation.

 

London

In a disappointing decision for the UK’s media, and to the apparent relief of much of the legal community, the Supreme Court yesterday opted (pdf) to keep in place an interim injunction protecting the names of a celebrity couple PJS and YMA, one of whom was allegedly involved in an olive oil-drenched ménage à trois in a plastic paddling pool.

Engaged in close combat with the judiciary and much of the legal profession since the Court of Appeal over-ruled the High Court in favour of the imposition of the injunction in late January, Fleet Street’s finest are clearly in no mood to let the matter rest. The story looks set to run until the allegations go to full trial, and will probably linger for a considerable period of time thereafter, whichever way the court decides.

sun-front-pageIrrespective of the rights and wrongs of the various legal interpretations taken so far, if there’s one thing that can be said with any degree of certainty it is surely that the reputational dimension of the case has been exploited mercilessly by those seeking to make the allegation public, and apparently overlooked or ignored by the couple in their sights.

At least, this is an easy and obvious conclusion to make. After all, thanks to foreign media coverage, interventions by high profile bloggers, an orgy of speculation on Twitter and a mainstream media intent on pushing both the spirit and the letter of the law to their limits (eg. Daily Mail redacted article below), just about everyone knows the names of those involved.

DailyMail_PJSRedacted

Don’t they?

Perhaps it’s not quite that straight-forward.

It is worth remembering the injunction held fast, at least for a few weeks before the names of those involved were published in the US.

And then geo-blocking ensured (and continues to ensure) that the US article that sparked the media furore was seen by relatively few people – other than those using VPNs – in England & Wales, where the injunction applied.

Google was also ordered to remove numerous links to articles and posts (here’s one list) mentioning the story, thereby limiting further access, at least for those using Google.co.uk.

While these defences proved by no means water-tight, over 60% of people participating in an April 2016 YouGov study stated they did not know the identity of the couple being talked about – a figure that seems unlikely to have changed much since, if online search interest for the term ‘PJS injunction’ is anything to go by.

An important question from a reputational – and a legal – perspective is whether the figure would have been any higher had the media named the couple in January, when the injunction was first applied for.

It is hard to know.

Certainly the story has now dragged out over several months and is likely to have resulted in considerable embarrassment, especially should it come to the attention of the couple’s children. But has it ended up causing significantly greater reputational damage to a pair which has publicly confirmed it conducts an open relationship, and whose ostentatiously flamboyant public life does little to suggest it has much to hide? Will it adversely affect the careers, earnings or image rights of the two?

Perhaps.

There again, reputational damage may not be the primary concern of PJS and co, at least not now. Rather, it may well be about having justice in court, and being seen to have justice in court, irrespective of the brouhaha and the costs and whatever comes afterwards.

My guess is that the PR/communications dimension was indeed initially overlooked by PJS and co. A broader and more proactive approach involving lawyers, PR advisers and online reputation experts would almost certainly have been advisable from the start.

Nonetheless, against the odds, the couple has persuaded the Supreme Court of its case, legally reinforced the privacy rights of celebrities and other individuals, limited some of the reputational downside that inevitably cones with litigation, and successfully jabbed Fleet Street in the eye, not once but several times.

 

UPDATE: As of November 4, 2016, the celebrity couple and News Group Newspapers agreed an out-of-court settlement on the basis of the latter’s breach of confidence and misuse of private information.

Here’s a potted timeline of events to date:

Scène de Ménage
A Play in Several Parts

Dramatis personae

‘PJS’ – husband of YMA
‘YMA’ – celebrity entertainer and husband of PJS
‘AB’ – PJS’ lover, and lover (and subsequently) husband of CD
‘CD’ – AB’s husband former partner ‘AB’ and AB’s then partner of ‘CD’

Part I – Exposition

  • 2007/8: PJS meets AB
  • 2009: PJS and AB start a sexual relationship
  • 2011: PJS messages AB to ask whether CD was ‘up for a three-way’

Part II – Conflict

  • Jan 2016: AB and CD approach Sun on Sunday newspaper with story about PJS. PJS declines to comment on the record when approached by the newspaper
  • Jan 15: Lawyers for PJS apply to the High Court for an interim injunction in England and Wales. The judge rejects the injunction on the grounds that the newspaper is entitled to ‘correct the public image’ presented by PJS, issuing a seven day interim injunction for PJS to appeal
  • Jan 21: Lawyers for PJS lodge appeal for injunction in England and Wales
  • Jan 22: Court of Appeal rules in favour of PJS on privacy grounds, publishes ruling with names redacted

Part III – Rising Action

Part IV – Climax

  • Not achieved

Part V – Denouement

 

London

‘Never’, cautioned Benjamin Franklin, ‘ruin an apology with an excuse’.

In a letter (below) to customers published online and in newspapers, Southern Railway CEO Charles Horton states he is ‘extremely sorry’ for severe disruptions to his firm’s rail services arising from a change of role for the company’s conductors. And then promptly blames the havoc on the RMT Union.

Horton’s apology comes across as a passing of the buck, and insincere.

It also appears defensive. Given the firm’s reputation for poor services, his wish to be seen as apologetic is understandable.

But this does not mean it is the appropriate thing to do.

The Oxford Dictionary defines an apology as ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure’.

To be credible, an apology must be seen as heartfelt.

If Southern’s stated commitments to improve its services and employee welfare are genuine, there’s no need for – and certainly little to be gained by – apologising for the union’s behaviour.

Despite misgivings about the word, in this instance Mr Horton may be better advised to express regret or concern. Oxford defines regret as a ‘feeling of sadness, repentance or disappointment’ about a course of action. Horton feels sad that the RMT is compelled to strike … .

Apology or regret aside, Horton should also candidly acknowledge the firm’s service is below par, that there’s a comprehensive plan in place to improve customer satisfaction, and that the role change is one of many actions to this end over the coming weeks and months.

Only by acknowledging the problem and focusing squarely on the solution does Horton have a chance of convincing customers of his sincerity. And only then can he credibly pass off the union as self-interested and intransigent.