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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?

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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.

 

Amazon is suing over a thousand people offering bogus reviews on Fiverr.com for USD 5. Employees at Bell Canada are discovered ramping its apps without disclosing their affiliation. Researchers reckon 20% of reviews on Yelp are fake, an often cited report by Bing Liu at the University of Illinois estimates 30% of online reviews are not what they appear.

PR ethics — for want of a better description — are cause for concern across the world.

How do they compare in Asia?

chinawebscrubbersAs noted in a recent PR Week article on PR ethics in Asia (in which I am quoted), much depends on the local context, particularly consumer expectations, the regulatory environment and industry codes, the relative maturity of the PR and marketing industry, and the willingness (and sometimes naivety) of the mainstream and other media to keep its face clean.

Widespread ‘Black PR’ in China is sometimes cited as evidence that the problem is endemic in the region and it is fair to say that the brutally competitive nature of business in the Middle Kingdom, in which the opportunity to undermine detractors/the competition through fair means or foul is often pursued with relish, combined with widespread anon- and pseudonymity, pressure to buy advertising for better coverage, and all manner of other nasties, help make it a particularly tricky place to do business.

In my experience, China is an outlier. Despite a reputation for cosy political relationships and a pliant mainstream media in many parts of the region, and evidence of devious online practices, there’s little to indicate that shady PR is any more widespread and entrenched across Asia than in, say, Latin America or parts of Europe.

 

The rush of tweets, infographics and animated gifs makes it challenging to get a real handle on longer-term communication trends. Thankfully, long-form journalism, storytelling and analysis are in rude health.

Here are the three best books on communication I have read in 2013 (ie. not necessarily published over the past twelve months):

Trust Me, I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday

Billed as a warts-and-all confessional on modern-day media manipulation and spin-doctoring, Trust Me is actually principally a polemic on the state of the media in the US and a no-holds-barred expose on the inner workings of the blogs re-setting news industry plate tectonics, notably Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Drudge Report, Gawker and Huffington Post. If you believe your news should be informative and balanced, then this book makes for highly unsettling reading – Holiday’s thesis is that the media industry has effectively lost its bearings in a desperate quest for exclusives, page views and ad bucks, disregarding any pretence at accuracy, objectivity or integrity in the process. While Trust Me, I’m Lying reads a little like a personal slanging match in places (the author pulls no punches in fingering those he sees as chiefly responsible, amongst them Gawker Media’s Nick Denton and media talking head Jeff Jarvis), it holds valuable insights and lessons for both communications professionals and consumers.

Exposure, by Michael Woodford

When Michael Woodford, newly appointed CEO of medical to consumer optical manufacturer Olympus, got wind of a scoop by a niche Japanese magazine detailing massive financial irregularities at his firm, he could scarcely have believed that he would wind up blowing the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses and becoming one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history. (Of course, Woodford has since been knocked off his perch atop the whistle-blower premiere league by one Edward Snowden.) While Exposure suffers from poor writing and can hardly be described as a balanced account (according to Japanese friends, Woodford is seen to have over-egged the publicity pudding and thrust himself to the front and centre of the story in an unashamedly un-Japanese manner), it is nonetheless a fascinating and, in this case, singularly unedifying insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It is also an excellent example of how a reputable company can be brought to its knees by a rogue employee (or two) through bitter resolve and smart communication on the one hand and corporate secrecy and intransigence on the other. For fuller thoughts see this blog post.

The New Emerging Market Multinationals, by Amitava Chattopadhyay and Rajeev Batra with Aysegul Ozsomer

A book less about communication and reputation than about brand building, the authors use in-depth interviews with senior executives at emerging giants from Brazil, China, India, Turkey and other ’emerging’ markets to identify how a new wave of multinationals are building global businesses and global brands. Full of valuable insights into how firms like Asian Paints, Asia-Pacific Breweries, Godrej, Haier, Lenovo, Natura and Wipro are building their brands, The New Emerging Market Multinationals sets out a step-by-step process for global brand-building, including how to overcome country of origin perceptions, and ends with a look at how companies are – and should – manage their brands across their organisations, making a strong argument for centrally-managed brands. An excellent resource for professionals at emerging market firms and at established players figuring how to take on their new competitors.

 

Check my Goodreads profile for ratings and reviews of other books on communication and other topics.

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.

 

Translated literally, ‘keiretsu’ in Japanese means ‘headless combine’. Sadly, it would seem a reasonable description of the state of Japan’s mega-corporations and their relationship with the Japanese mainstream media after reading Michael Woodford’s Exposure over Chinese New Year.

Exposure

Having slogged his way to the top of camera and medical tech firm Olympus, a rare achievement in Japan for a gaijin, Woodford memorably blew the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses, making him one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history and Olympus a default case study in corporate governance abuse.

It is striking that while the story was broken by Facta, a small Japanese magazine, and lapped up by the international business media, Japan’s mainstream newspapers and broadcasters would not run what was probably Japan’s biggest business story of the past decade. Why? Apparently out of a fear of losing advertising revenue and concern that they might expose themselves legally.

Only when the independent Third-Party Committee had reported its findings and established the guilt of Olympus’ leadership did the local media jump on the bandwagon, even if (as Woodford points in an insightful interview with the Japan Times) they only then reported, not investigated.

Woodford was clearly adept at working the media. Yet he also knew that if he was to return to lead the company then he had to make his case directly to Olympus’ workforce, leading his team to set up olympusgrassroots.com, a (now defunct) website for Olympus employees, and to conduct an open interview/Q&A for website members on Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga.

This was a PR masterstroke, providing Woodford and his team with a direct route to communicate with and galvanise rank and file staffers and enable them publicly to demonstrate their support – not easy in a culture in which people rarely go publicly against the grain or express their opinion on controversial matters. It also proved a useful tool rebutting misleading statements being circulated by the Olympus leadership.

Worth watching is Woodford’s performance on Nico Nico Douga, in which he comes across as assured, sincere and objective, despite having had almost no sleep for days.

Of course, there’s nothing much new about using digital networks to circumnavigate formal communications channels. But its use as a proactive PR channel by a CEO against his board is a novel scenario. Certainly, nothing like it had been seen in Japan.

Ultimately, Exposure is a fascinating insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It also persuasively demonstrates the power of communication and some of the techniques available to help force an issue into the open in a tightly controlled and conservative business and media environment.

 

Disclaimer: Michael Woodford kindly agreed to be interviewed for my book Managing Online Reputation