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Corporate reputation

London

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.

 

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.

Kuala Lumpur

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.

What are your thoughts or experiences?

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 top 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.

While many foreign firms have high brand recognition and loyalty in the US, not to say substantial manufacturing interests, not a single European entity and only Honda, Samsung, Sony and Toyota from Asia are found to have an excellent or very good reputation in the country, reinforcing how challenging it is to build a strong reputation in foreign lands.

Harris_RQ2014

 

The world is less flat than we suppose.

Might it also be less social?

 

 

Its 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 best 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. But 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.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Not a bad lunchtime view

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.

While the workshop focused on how organisations can mitigate and manage corporate reputation in a broad sense, including during crises, much of our discussion focused 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.

 

Fortunately, my take on this issue appeared to resonate positively with participants of the workshop.

But there’s always so much to learn.

It would be great to know your comments or suggestions.

Shukran!