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Corporate reputation

With allegations of sexual harassment and abuse swirling thick and fast in just about every industry, individuals in the spotlight need carefully calibrate their response.

Some of the accused – Harvey WeinsteinKevin Spacey and Robert Scoble spring readily to mind – have mangled their responses by appearing highly indignant and combative, overly defensive, cloyingly self-pitying or shamelessly deflective and underhand.

Handling true or partially true allegations about sexual misconduct is no walk in the park, especially when litigation is threatened and your reputation is in jeopardy. Misjudgements and mistakes of one sort or another are easily made.

By contrast, dealing with ostensibly true allegations should be a piece of cake.

If only.

Today’s climate of widespread distrust and more or less instantaneous judgement means the accused stand guilty in the court of public opinion until proven innocent.

Yesterday a number of individuals listed on a spreadsheet of Conservative MPs accused of various sexual misdeeds publicly rebutted allegations about their sex lives.

Two stand out as being particularly plausible.

Here’s Minister of State for Justice Dominic Raab MP responding to claims that he had behaved inappropriately with a woman:

Statement by Dominic Raab MP on The Westminster List

And here’s how Foreign Office Minister Rory Stewart MP took on allegations that he had asked a female researcher (aka Sophie Bolsover) to do ‘odd things’.

If the ensuing media coverage is anything to go by, most commentators believe the claims about Stewart and Raab were unfair and untrue.

There are some useful lessons in how Stewart and Raab made their respective cases:

  • Both responded quickly and strongly, supporting their case using demonstrable facts – in Stewart’s case public support from the person he was supposed to have misbehaved with, in Raab’s case a strong denial that he had ever used or been served with any kind of injunction (something that can be checked)
  • Both communicated in a straight-forward language and professional tone that appeared consistent with their respective values and backgrounds – Raab the lawyer, Stewart the explorer and diplomat – and therefore came across as credible
  • Neither resorted to overt or unreasonable legal threats against the list-maker(s) or spreaders – sensible when at a time of heightened public sensitivity about a highly inflammatory issue that may yet cause even greater damage to the Government and the broader Tory party, and when the identity of the list-makers remains unknown. (At the same time, both appear to have deliberately given themselves ample wiggle-room for a legal response when the heat dies down. Also noteworthy is the fact that the fully redacted list quickly disappeared from Twitter, suggestive of a speedy, high-level behind-the-scenes takedown request.)

Meantime, rumours continue to swirl around Westminster and beyond about those MPs on the list who have yet to respond publicly, substantively, or who are seen to have responded particularly defensively.

Given that sexual harassment as an issue appears unlikely to abate anytime soon, the heat is now on these individuals to make their case persuasively in public.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Tony Jaques - Crisis ProofingWhey protein concentrate (‘WPC 80’) may not be the best known or sexiest product, but it is certainly big business. Deriving from cow’s milk, and a by-product of cheese production, it is used in baby formula, beverages, and a host of food supplements, including for bodybuilders.

Like other dairy products, WPC 80 is susceptible to contamination, the result of which can be deadly when digested. So when Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company and the world’s largest dairy products producer discovered in July 2013 that 38 tonnes of concentrate had tested positive for botulism, a recall was quickly announced.

The trouble was, later tests by the government found no evidence of botulism and that the recall had been a false alarm. However, considerable damage had already been done to Fonterra, with several countries announcing milk product import bans and the company’s reputation for product quality in severe jeopardy.

The company’s independent inquiry (summary – pdf) into the incident concluded that, among other things, Fonterra was ‘not ready for a crisis of this magnitude’, that there had been a ‘failure to join the dots’ between botulism, infant food products, consumer sensitivities and the firm’s reputation, and that the company’s risk and crisis processes needed overhauling.

Fonterra’s top brass would have done well to have read Crisis Proofing, Tony Jaques’ book on how organisations should reduce the chances of a crisis happening and minimise the damage that may arise should a crisis occur.

While he gives many useful tips on crisis response, including how to navigate legal advice on apologies, Jaques’ background in issues management means his insights and practical tips on the leadership mindset, strategic approach and planning processes that enable companies to avoid train wrecks in the first place are particularly valuable.

In my experience, many companies undue emphasis on identifying risks (especially, given their slippery nature, reputational risks), at the expense of ensuring their issues management processes work properly – an area Jaques excels in. For example, he lambasts the probability/impact and significance/influence models for prioritising issues as crude and over-simplified, before setting out a more comprehensive and nuanced proprietary model based on an issue’s Impact, Salience, Visibility, Affectability, Proximity and Profile.

Jaques also takes aim at the reactive and ad hoc approach taken by many organisations to managing issues. Too often, he says, companies are overly focused on recording and tracking risks, and tweaking the identification, tracking and decision-making processes for the benefit of management and risk committees, as opposed to actively working to resolve them in a clear and strategic way. By contrast, his Do-it issue management model (chapter 8) is a model of clarity, practicality and focus.

At the heart of Crisis Proofing is a call for mindful leadership of the top-down variety that can seem contrary to the open and horizontal forms of organisational decision-making pushed by some contemporary management thinkers. Yet, as Jaques argues, effective crisis management demands hands-on, decisive and swift decision-making at the very top of the organisation, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and make changes.

As such, while many of the tips in Crisis Proofing are useful in day-to-day risk, issues and crisis management, the book is especially relevant to those leaders and senior decision-makers directly responsible for their organisation’s strategy, culture and reputation.

It is a book I recommend wholeheartedly.

 

Disclosure: I was asked by the author to review the chapter of Crisis Proofing on social media, and was subsequently provided with a review copy of the book by Oxford University Press. I also discuss Fonterra’s WPC 80 botulism scare in my book Managing Online Reputation

 

The web is now the medium of choice for campaign groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam and the WWF to raise funds, expand their networks, and mobilise supporters.

Little wonder: online pressure played no small part in Shell exiting its longstanding partnership with Lego, Nestlé reconfiguring its palm oil supply chain, SeaWorld halting its breeding of captive orcas, and the collapse in shark fin consumption in Hong Kong.

Then UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that online pressure had ‘significantly influenced’ his decision on the Rupert Murdoch’s 2010 bid to take full control of BSkyB.

finishedwithfins

 

But it is not just the big campaign groups that have benefited. Once the preserve of students, tree huggers and political dissidents, activism is now the opium of suburban housewives and white collar workers across the world. It is particularly evident in the huge popularity of online petition sites:

  • Change.org counts over 140 million members in 196 countries
  • Avaaz boasts some 43 million members in 194 countries
  • Care2 has almost 35 million members
  • A UK member of parliament recently told me she receives dozens of emails every day supporting various causes from the 3 million+ members of 38 Degrees, all of which she feels compelled to respond to.

People power has never felt so real, or so daunting. And in an age in which business is increasingly expected to play the role of a concerned and actively engaged ‘citizen’, the numbers involved and the sheer unpredictability of public opinion raises real challenges and risks, as firms supporting ostensibly mainstream causes have discovered.

Drawing on discussions and interviews with Greenpeace, the WWF and high profile individual activists, I argue in my book Managing Online Reputation that online activism is now mainstream, activist networks are becoming more amorphous, and campaign groups are deliberately making their lines of attack less predictable, before going on to detail three current and emerging strategies and tactics used online in the ongoing battle for public support.

The relevant chapter – on the social and environmental threats of the web – is now available online as a free sample:

 

With propaganda swirling online, a Change.org petition fast escalating and Greenpeace all over your Facebook page, an online activist attack can feel terrifying and remorseless. But while some activist campaigns meet or even exceed their objectives, most fail to convince the public of their merits, or simply succumb to slacktivism.

How you choose to respond requires a close understanding of your detractors’ playbook, a smart reading of the public mood, and an appreciation of your tolerance for business and reputational risk – factors I’ll explore shortly.

Image courtesy of WWF Hong Kong

 

 

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?

pownall-book-0006

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.

 

With MH370, MH17 and now QX8501, food safety and health scares in China, ongoing supply chain issues, hacks aplenty, popular protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong and terrorist attacks in Australia and China, its been a busy year in the world of reputation and reputation management across Asia.

Here are the most popular articles published to this blog over the past twelve months.

1. Malaysia Airlines, MH370 and social media crisis communications
2. Change communications and social media
3. Safeguarding corporate reputation in social media
4. Why your online reputation is not your reputation
5. Customers at the core? McDonald’s messes up its crisis messages
6. Crisis communications in Malaysia
7. How to handle online defamation
8. Assessing the Hong Kong government’s communications during Occupy Central
9. Asia’s most reputable companies
10. What’s the right social media strategy?

With traffic to the blog up 35% over 2013, I’m encouraged to keep plugging away on these topics.

If you’ve any suggestions, I am all ears!

Best wishes for a smooth and prosperous 2015!

 

If there’s one thing that jumps out from Nielsen/Harris Poll’s latest report on the most reputable companies in the US, it is that foreignness counts.

Many foreign firms have high brand recognition and loyalty in the US, not to say substantial manufacturing interests, yet not a single European entity and only Honda, Samsung, Sony and Toyota from Asia are found to have an excellent or very good corporate reputation in the country.

Harris_RQ2014

 

Perhaps the world is less flat than many imagine.

 

It is the time of the year when corporate reputations are paraded afresh, and first out of the blocks is the annual list of The World’s Most Reputable Companies from the Reputation Institute.

The 2014 list contains some interesting findings from an Asian perspective:

  • Three Asian firms make the top 10: Sony, Canon and Samsung
  • Only 20 Asian firms make the grade, all but five (Samsung, LG Electronics, Singapore Airlines, Acer, Lenovo) of which are Japanese
  • Lenovo is the only Chinese firm to be listed.

The fact that Japanese companies are still regarded as the most reputable in Asia comes as little surprise (despite Sony’s financial difficulties), and Samsung’s rise to the top ranks is probably only to be expected.

The list also underscores the huge reputational challenges facing Chinese companies as they go global – an issue I have written about previously.

The RI’s list is also interesting for what’s not there:

  • No energy firms
  • No banks
  • No Indian firms.

Here’s the list in full:

RI_WorldsMostReputableCompanies2014

 

 

 

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.

Shukran.

Chinese brands are more than holding their own against western firms in the court of public opinion in China, according to WPP’s latest Top 100 Most Valuable Chinese Brands study.

Local brands the mainland Chinese most trust are:

MostTrustedChineseBrands2014

 
A few things jump out:

  • The fact that a majority of the most trusted firms are now privately-owned
  • The high level of trust placed in Baidu, despite its legacy of selling search placements, paid deletion of online comments, video copyright infringements and other misdemeanours
  • The absence of (and therefore relatively low trust in) well-known global Chinese companies, notably Lenovo.

Most noteworthy is that the study finds that Chinese companies/brands are (and indeed have been for some time) as trusted or more trusted in the China than their foreign peers, something that may come as a surprise to many outside the Middle Kingdom and to plenty of foreigners living in China.

ChineseversusForeignbrands_2014

Assuming the data is accurate, and putting aside concerns that the findings go against the grain of other (pdf) studies and that trust differs significantly by category (German cars and Italian luxury still get the nod in China), how is it that so many Chinese firms are building local reputations that are just as strong if not stronger than those of their foreign peers?

Some brief thoughts:

  • They understand local consumers and stakeholders better than their foreign competitors
  • They provide increasingly useful, valuable and high quality products
  • They have kept prices affordable, at least relative to some foreign firms eg. Starbucks
  • They are actively improving customer service and other functions
  • They provide many local Chinese with jobs
  • In an environment in which patriotism is being played up by the authorities, Chinese companies are seen as Chinese (though this can work both to their advantage and to their detriment)
  • Government and official media (CCTV) campaigns against foreign firms such as Apple and GSK are helping seed doubts about the quality of foreign products
  • Foreign brand failures, such as Fonterra’s botulism scare earlier this year, have given local brands an opportunity to cast themselves as caring and responsible.

As the study shows, companies of all types are generally held in fairly low esteem in China. The Chinese are notoriously price conscious and fickle – brand loyalty remains low in the country. As competition intensifies and food safety and pollution issues continue (as seems likely), trust will become an increasingly important factor in purchase decision-making in China.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see which Chinese companies manage to win the real trust of their domestic customers and other stakeholders, and how they go about it.

Equally interesting will be to see how foreign companies react.

Surely even the German car makers won’t be able to rest on their laurels for too long.