Corporate communications

Caution, shameless self-promotion: my book Managing Online Reputation launches today.

You might ask – perfectly legitimately – why I have taken the trouble of writing 60,000+ words about something that should now be well understood. Surely it hardly needs saying that Google, Twitter and Weibo make it harder to manage a company’s name and image, opening it to the whims, prejudices and ulterior motives of disappointed customers, aggrieved employees, malicious competitors, enraged activists and recalcitrant algorithms?


Yet it remains the case that many organisations (and individuals) remain unclear how best to insulate themselves from trouble online, and continue to mess up their response when things go public.

It has not helped that there remains a dearth of practical, common sense advice in this area. There are many reasons for this, from a tendency to see social media as a business and marketing Holy Grail while overlooking the hazards of the conquest, to the fact that most existing guidance is written from a social media marketing, public relations, technology or legal perspective when effective online reputation protection and defence is about all of these working together. Things have also not been helped by a cottage industry of  ‘online reputation management’ specialists selling puffed-up search engine solutions.

Managing Online Reputation draws on what I have learned over many years as a communications strategist, PR practitioner and digital marketer mining the seam where communications and reputation, and the internet and social media meet. Accordingly reputation is tackled primarily from a communications perspective – albeit a broad one – and I make no apologies for this: if issues are left to fester long enough they will almost inevitably become reputational – and hence PR – problems and must be tackled as such.

However, to understand more clearly the risks to reputation posed by social media, and to appreciate the many different response options, I talked with experts in fields such as media and IP law, social and environmental activism, IT security, digital forensics, crisis management,  emergency response, social media monitoring, search engine marketing and Wikipedia management.

Given that the social web impacts so many areas of an organisation it should come as little surprise that online reputation is a complex topic. However Managing Online Reputation tries not to over-complicate or over-sell the issue. You’ll find it avoids talk of ‘social media crises’ and other hyperbolic marketing phraseology, just as it makes no grand claims about what the many social media business and listening tools now available can do for you. Rather it looks at social media in a broader context, and offers practical, realistic, common-sense advice in plain English.

It is also intended to be interesting. Sprinkled amidst tried and tested ways to categorise, assess and respond to potential problems online, and detailed guidance on how to develop (or update) your crisis plan, you’ll find vignettes about the culture of smears in China and political protest in Hong Kong, the easy and pungent opium of online petitions, the perils of companies attaching themselves to social movements, and what a black swan looks like online. There are also detailed case studies of companies of all shapes and sizes responding successfully to and recovering from fast escalating negative incidents and bone fide crises.

Here’s more of a taster:


More than anything you should come away from reading Managing Online Reputation with the notion that, despite the scepticism in which companies and institutions are held today, and the innate tribalism and volatility of life online, your organisation’s reputation is eminently knowable, manageable and redeemable – as long as you prepare well, keep your head and play it straight.

Managing Online Reputation is available in paperback and as an e-book via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, 800-CEO-READ and other outlets.

You can find out more about the book and how to order it here.


Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising, yet most PR efforts are wasted.

At least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.


After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists (free chapter), write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.


Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

It came as something of a shock. Arriving in Singapore from London in 2006 to run a global PR consultancy’s digital capabilities across Asia-Pacific, it quickly became clear that while digital marketing in the region was in rude health, corporate use of digital communications was often poor and sometimes non-existent.


Budgets were small and the outlook mostly short-term. Many firms were struggling to understand the role and value of online PR. Key stakeholders were apparently not yet using Twitter. For companies, websites were Kings; email and search were its Queens and social media was but an Infant mewling about buzz and bloggers.

Much progress has been made over the past few years, not least a broad realisation that a proactive approach to digital communications that includes social media is a must-have. And well it should be. Asians are some of the most mobile, networked and digitally-savvy individuals in the world. The world’s most social consumers in virtually every product category, Asians not only consume huge volumes of online content but also create more videos and other output than people in any other region.

Equally, many Asians are increasingly aware of their rights as consumers and citizens and are prepared to take a public stand when they see these rights compromised. Negative product and service experiences are widely shared online, as firms such as Vodafone and Dolce & Gabbana have discovered to their cost. Civil society actors such as WALHI in Indonesia are using the Internet and word of mouth highly professionally to force change. Suddenly, the range of potential reputation red lights has expanded significantly.

While there has been a flowering of company Facebook pages and Twitter and Weibo handles over recent years, there remains plenty to do if organisations are to fully leverage the benefits and limit the threats inherent in today’s digitised communications landscape.

VMA’s recent Pulse study on corporate communications trends in Asia identifies three key digital challenges for corporate communication teams:

  1. Thin understanding and education
  2. Lack of budget, dedicated or otherwise
  3. Concerns about what employees may say online.

How should corporate communications teams accelerate their digital transformation? Here are three topline recommendations:

  • Education: While much traction for social media can be gained through trial and error, substantive progress is unlikely to be achieved without the buy-in of company leadership. Make a though and objective assessment of the broad range of opportunities and risks of social media and, if you don’t have one already, identify a strong and respected internal executive champion to establish ownership and authority, take responsibility for educating the CEO and other senior leaders, and to sell the vision. If that individual is in brand marketing or another function outside communications, make sure they are on your side and that you have a consistent vision. And whichever operating structure is chosen for digital/social media (centralised, de-centralised etc), ensure your team is actively playing its part and leveraging its known strengths: internal access and influence, external listening and engagement, management of corporate reputation.
  • Budget: Budgetary support will increase as a result of leadership confidence and buy-in. Don’t get hamstrung just because there is not a standalone digital/social corporate communications budget or figure that social media should live in PR. Many firms now now have dedicated social media teams that sit independently of communications; for instance, while social media resides within marketing at Ford, the Digital Acceleration team at Nestle owns social media and reports simultaneously to marketing and corporate communications. Beyond this, be clear what you are trying to achieve and report regularly using metrics that are relevant and understandable to top leadership.
  • Behaviour: Increasingly, communications is seen to work in the long-term interests of a company’s reputation, providing it with a legitimate interest in ensuring sound employee behaviour. Accordingly, communications should work closely with other relevant areas of the business to identify and mitigate possible behavioural reputational risks, rather than simply having to manage them once they occur. Many organisations now have a corporate social media policy of some description that sets out the parameters of employee behaviour in social media, but few have successfully ensured that their people (as well as others within their ecosystem such as sales agents) fully understand and live by these documents.

In my experience working both in in-house PR and as an external communications and social media consultant, the image of corporate communications can suffer by appearing too far removed from the realities of day-to-day life in the trenches.

Social media makes managing reputation in real-time a company-wide prerogative. Corporate communicators must get into the trenches and fight the good fight. Being seen to do this will help accelerate digital as much as anything else.

First published on VMA Group blog. I am an Associate at VMA Enhance, VMA’s professional development arm


To paraphrase the Chinese curse, we are condemned to live in interesting times. Economic uncertainty abounds, jobs for life have disappeared, companies gobble each other at the drop of a hat.

But while change is a constant in many people’s working lives, most  (70% according to John Kotter and McKinsey) major change management programs fail.


Failure to communicate effectively is one major reason and, according to a recent panel discussion of change communications specialists at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, much of that failure is down to an over-emphasis on leadership communications and a lack of willingness to understand and act on employee concerns and motivations.

Rather, the real key to successful change communications is for line managers to act as the primary change agents. Research studies show that employees trust their line managers much more than they trust senior management. The CEO town hall does not cut the mustard when it comes to communicating major change.

Yet even line managers have their work cut out, for employees trust their fellow colleagues more than their immediate bosses, something that is likely to have been deepened by the availability of social media within the workplace. Far from killing office water-cooler chat, social media has put employee word of mouth on steroids.

How should organisations communicate with rank and file employees on social media during major change initiatives?

According to the panellists, they should:

  • Not attempt to control the conversation
  • Set expectations and carefully manage conversation parameters
  • Create a constructive environment by encouraging employees to share concerns but also potential solutions
  • Look for the underlying issues as many employees will not share their main concerns
  • Make sure to listen and respond quickly, openly and thoroughly.

Sound advice.

To square the circle, I would add that both company leaders and managers need to be actively involved in these conversations.

Disclaimer: I chair the Chamber’s Communications & Marketing Committee that helped organise the session.


This week I was fortunate to visit the Middle East to give a two-day workshop on ‘Reputation Risk and Communication’.

It was my first trip to Dubai for a number of years and it was a privilege to return and witness at close quarters the extraordinary flowering of the emirate and the optimism and drive of its people. It was also a welcome antidote to the shocking and numbing images of riots and massacres that so easily shape perceptions of the broader region.

The visit also provided a chance to hear direct from senior communications, marketing, risk management and legal professionals from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Pakistan about their professional observations, experiences and challenges.

The workshop focused on how organisations can mitigate and manage corporate reputation in a broad sense, including during crises, with much of our discussion focusing on social media, which is clearly a major concern, in part due to its role in the so-called Arab Spring.

Here are a few slides from the workshop outlining how companies and governments can safeguard corporate reputation in social media.


I am glad to say my take on this issue appeared to resonate positively with my workshop delegates.

That said, there’s always so much to learn.

It would be great to know your comments or suggestions.


Hell hath no fury like a customer scorned.

Just ask British Gas, whose recent foray into social media via a Twitter Q&A using the #askBG hashtag to explain a 9.2% price hike met with undisguised contempt from its customers.


True to form, the UK’s tabloid press and other media were only too happy to watch BG trip up and to record in excruciating detail the public dismemberment of a corporate carcass on social media.

Much has already been said about how BG could better have handled the conversation, notably that it should have been better prepared to respond to the wide range of questions and allegations thrown its way.

Quite so, but while this sounds fine in principle it can be tricky to achieve in practice. 16,000 tweets is a lot for any organisation to cope with.

One option would have been for BG to have fronted a team of executives from different parts of the business rather than a single customer services spokesman. Not only would this have created far greater response capacity, it would also have enabled the responses to be more helpful, insightful and authoritative.

Yet fielding a bigger team may not have been necessary had British Gas thought more carefully about its hashtag.

As we saw with McDonald’s infamous #McDstories (spectacular backfire) and #Meetthefarmers (neutral to negative reaction) sponsored promotions, the broader a discussion is cast, the more likely people are to talk about things you may not expect or want them to.

#mcdstories #meetthefarmers


By choosing a hashtag explicitly related to the issue at hand, BG would have had a better chance to contain the parameters of the discussion and shape its outcome.

Of course, the bigger question is whether BG should have hosted a Twitter Q&A in the first place.

With a reputation for unwarranted price hikes and third-rate customer service built up over many years, there was always a risk that a public discussion on a highly topical, contentious and political topic hosted on a channel tracked by ranks of Tweetdeck ogling journalists could go astray.


If ever there was a stark reminder of the lack of trust in Chinese companies in the west, it is surely the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US’ (CFIUS) recent investigation into pork as a national security threat as part of  Shuanghui International’s acquisition of US meat producer Smithfield Foods. Finally approved by shareholders on September 24, the deal is the largest takeover of a US company by a Chinese firm to date.

Given images of dead pigs floating in droves down the Yangtze River and the generally parlous state of food in China, food safety is a legitimate concern for US regulators.

However, while pork is widely consumed in the US, its availability can hardly be said to be critical to the health and welfare of the average American citizen. The real issue is that Shuanghui is Chinese and the deal is viewed in Washington as another instance of the long arm of the Chinese government willfully and steadily eroding US dominance in one industry after another.

For many in the west, Chinese companies continue to be seen as purveyors of poor quality goods produced at low cost with little concern for employee well-being or safety. Traditionally focused on increasing local sales, building market share and closely managing their relationships with key customers, investors and the mainland government, Chinese firms have had little reason to tackle the preconceptions – merited or otherwise – of foreign policy-makers and opinion-formers.

As they expand into western markets, China’s companies find themselves having to win support in Washington and Brussels. To gain the confidence of policy-makers and regulators, they must demonstrate strong governance and a substantive commitment to the local communities in which they hope to operate by hiring and empowering local people and developing strong local partnerships. Honest and open communication, something that does not come naturally to Chinese corporate leaders, is also vital.

More challenging are allegations of covert support from the Chinese government and close connections with the military, as Huawei has discovered. While difficult for third parties to prove, these claims are also tricky for Chinese companies of all types to deny plausibly, especially at a time when China is aggressively creating a roster of national and global champions.

With these concerns increasingly raised in western capitals, Beijing could help the cause of Chinese companies by clarifying how state aid is allocated and to which entities, further strengthening corporate governance standards and insisting on more detailed reporting. Better still, it should free up competition in the many sectors still dominated by China’s state-owned enterprises.

In light of the increasingly political nature of decisions regarding foreign investment in the west, Beijing should also pay attention to how China itself is viewed amongst opinion-forming elites and the general public. Research shows that while people across the world believe that the global balance of power is shifting in China’s favour, the country’s image remains poor in the west and has gotten worse in recent years due to perceptions of widespread corruption, growing military power and its increasingly vocal claims in the South China Sea. China’s growing commercial clout and the way it does business are also frequently cited as concerns.

Conscious of its image, Beijing has been attempting to improve China’s standing through a wide range of ‘soft power’ initiatives, including a huge investment in the expansion of CCTV and part-funding the roll out of Chinese language and culture Confucius Institutes across the world. In the US alone there are now over 70 Confucius Institutes.

Nevertheless, as Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has pointed out, true soft power is rarely achieved employing top-down measures; rather it is only accumulated when businesses, artists, academics and others are allowed to flourish freely and independently and concoct ideas and products with real global appeal.

To win hearts and minds, China could usefully learn from its South Korean neighbour and specifically from PSY and Samsung, both of which have transformed perceptions of their home country more effectively than decades of institutional effort by the government in Seoul.

To turn heads in the west and open up new markets to Chinese products, Beijing has much work to do improving its own business backyard before its companies are trusted.

Its strongest long-term card may lie in creating a level and fertile playing ground on which individual voices and entrepreneurs can flourish.

Disclosure: Huawei is a former client.


Business leaders view social media as a source of competitive advantage and are investing significant dollars in social tools to improve internal collaboration, foster innovation and drive customer awareness and loyalty.

Yet CEOs have been reluctant to adopt social media as a communications vehicle. While evidence suggests that regional executives of western firms appear more willing to expose themselves online, most leaders of Asia-based firms opt to remain in the social shadows.


Social exception in Asia: Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son & friends
Photo credit: Danny Choo

Why are Asian leaders so reluctant to open up?

For one, Asian CEOs tend to be more circumspect and less open than their western peers. Discretion and privacy are paramount. The Jack Welsh-style cult does not loom large in these parts.

The close-knit world of family firms and state-owned enterprises, with CEOs focusing on a narrow range of key corporate stakeholders, notably investors and government, must also be borne in mind. Conducting relationships face-to-face continues – and very likely will continue – to be the preferred modus operandi.

Equally, the emphasis on consensual decision-making by committee, especially in North Asia, means Asia’s corporate leaders tend to be more risk-averse, have less room for manoeuvre and hence are less willing to be seen publicly to be leading from the front.

Last but not least is a perceived lack of time and, in many cases, a poverty of skilled support. Do I have to write it all myself? And if I don’t, what are the dangers of not being seen as ‘authentic’? Should everything be posted in my name, and does that mean I am legally accountable? How to respond to all the comments? Should we respond to negative feedback and, if so, which ones?

What will it take to get Asia’s corporate leaders to adopt a more open leadership style?

First, CEOs need to understand how and why their key stakeholders use social media, and its role in the broader decision-making process. While research shows that CEOs in consumer industries are twice as likely to engage online audiences as their B2B counterparts, social media are the preferred news and research tool for many journalists, NGOs, employees and other stakeholders, in both their professional and personal capacities. Gen Y-ers of all types use little else.

And while expansion into foreign markets and the need to build relationships with a greater range of stakeholders in a more transparent manner can prove a social tipping point, the need to connect with a broader range of stakeholders domestically is becoming stronger in many Asian markets as civil society evolves.

Whatever the trigger, corporate leaders in Asia using Twitter, Weibo or Facebook need to weigh carefully the business and reputational risks and rewards. Above all, they should have a clear idea of what they are looking to achieve.

CEOs can use social media to:

  • Increase interest & buzz. Lei Jun, billionaire founder of upstart Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi (and increasingly talked of as China’s Steve Jobs), proactively uses Weibo to drum up interest and buzz in his firm’s phones, latest promotions and discounts to some 4m+ followers. This is part of a broader marketing strategy that eschews traditional advertising in favour of selling phones online and direct through the micro-blog platform.
  • Build profile & image. Social media can help increase the visibility of both a company and its leadership, both amongst customers but also niche stakeholder groups. Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japanese telecoms and Internet firm Softbank, deploys Twitter to highlight company news, products and activities to his 1.8 million followers. Talking about his private life and sharing his views on politics and technology has also helped soften a reputation for autocracy.
  • Establish trust. While most leaders – indeed, most companies – employ Twitter, Facebook and YouTube primarily to ‘push’ news and information, social media is most powerful when holding discussions and soliciting feedback and ideas.  Being seen to engage openly and listen with a range of different audiences will help nurture trust, a useful attribute in any situation, not least during a crisis.
  • Drive change. Successful organisational transformation requires much more than management informing employees how to think and what to do – they need to feel involved and believe they have a real stake in the process. Former HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar, who transformed an also-ran Indian IT services firm into a global powerhouse, is one of many company leaders who have used social media internally as a key tool to steer change, communicating openly with staff throughout the process.
  • Correct misinformation: Elon Musk’s recent tangle with the New York Times over a damaging review of his firm’s Tesla Model S electric car shows social media can be a powerful tool for correcting misleading or inaccurate stories in the mainstream media and elsewhere. In a world in which rumours can circulate the globe in minutes, having an authoritative online voice is not simply advisable, it is necessary.
  • Activate supporters. As Barack Obama has demonstrated, social media can be a potent tool in recruiting, organizing, motivating and activating supporters.  They are also a useful weapon in crisis response and recovery. Yet examples of corporate leaders using social tools to respond to a crisis or publicly influence policy are few, not least in Asia. An exception is Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes, who regularly uses his blog to make the case to customers and stakeholders on national issues and airline industry regulation.

Having clarified their objectives, CEOs should consider the following 5 key principles for connecting with internal and external stakeholders:

  1. Don’t sell, add valueIt is expected that CEOs talk about their firms’ products and services, news and strategy on social media. But the most successful leaders use social media to talk chiefly about broader industry, technology or societal trends,
    and not necessarily in the form of official corporate “thought leadership”, which often takes a long time to pull together and is only relevant for a finite period. Rather, the more timely, personal and anecdotal a contribution the better.
  2. Be personal, yet professional. Leaders can appear distant and unapproachable. Talking about their interests, passions and hobbies, better still exhibiting their personality and a sense of humour, can help ‘humanise’ a corporate leader and narrow the perception gap. At the same time, corporate leaders are expected to set an example to their people and should be careful to appear professional and to embody their organisational values at all times.
  3. Be candid, yet cautious. Whether they like it or not, business leaders must expect challenging questions and complaints raised through social media; in general, the more open they appear the more they are accepted and trusted. On the flipside, a partial or evasive response may well be publicly dismantled. It is advisable to treat all social media as ‘on the record’ and avoid controversy unless a position can be strongly supported.
  4. Look for the unexpected. For many senior executives, social media smacks mostly of risk, yet it can also bring unexpected opportunities. Having tweeted his outrage at the gang rape in New Delhi, a follower of Mahindra chairman Arnand Mahindra suggested he make freely available an application that tracks a user’s location and sends SOS messages to selected contacts in case of an emergency. Mahindra promptly did so, winning widespread plaudits online and in the mainstream media.
  5. Understand legal parameters. The legal framework governing use of social media remains inconsistent and in many cases poorly enforced, especially around what constitutes fair disclosure. Is a tweet about rising product use considered ‘public’? Might it have a material share price impact? With the SEC starting to bare its teeth on this issue, executives are advised to err on the side of caution.

First published in Public Affairs Asia

A new study by McKinsey has some revealing findings on the state of reputation management worldwide.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Products/services are seen as the prime driver of corporate reputation. Innovation and good governance are also critical
  • Over half of firms, especially telecoms, pharma and financial, have experienced a reputation threat in the past 2 to 3 years
  • Two-thirds of companies, notably healthcare and telecoms players, expect an increase in the level of external scrutiny in coming years
  • Yet only a fifth of firms feel they are managing their reputation effectively
  • Fair pricing is rarely regarded as a top reputation driver by companies but is highly valued by their customers.

The authors note that the focus on product as the key driver of reputation and value has resulted in a lack of focus on other stakeholders, not least the fair treatment of employees, which only half of the respondents view as a top driver of reputation.


The treatment of employees can have a major impact on a company’s reputation, enabling it to be seen as an employer of choice. It can also result in lower recruitment and retention costs and a more productive workforce.

Happy and engaged employees can also be great ambassadors for their firm and its products, fueling positive and authentic word of mouth amongst communities, customers and other stakeholders, a benefit that can be enhanced through social media.

Having spoken to a large number of international and local firms across Asia in recent months about their approaches to reputation building and management, it is striking that employee communications and engagement has not been focused on or leveraged to anything like the same degree that is the case in more developed markets.

In a more command and control business environment dominated by manufacturing, few organisations have considered letting employees other than prescribed marketing or communications professionals loose on Twitter or weibo to extol their firm.

This is sensible – positive, authentic advocacy will only stem from fair treatment and substantive engagement.

As VMA (disclosure: business partner) highlighted in their recent report on Corporate Communications in Asia, companies are increasingly turning their attention to how to retain footloose Gen Y staff, and are hiring specialist employee communications professionals.

Those firms which treat their people well, listen to their requirements and ideas and involve them in decision-making, and which trust them to speak objectively and in a professional manner externally,  the impact on their reputations can be significantly enhanced.

Do you know of any effective employee advocacy programmes in Asia?