Online reputation management


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.



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.



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.


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

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?


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



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.



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:

  • 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 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.


Despite an economic slowdown, the rout of its stock markets, a plunge in exports, and a  crackdown on free speech and the media under Xi Jinping, China remains a huge opportunity for local and foreign companies alike.

It also presents its fair share of challenges, not least rapidly evolving consumer and stakeholder expectations, demands and behaviours, and a cut-throat, dog eat dog business environment typified by murky, closed-door government decision-making, high employee churn and widespread disregard for others’ IPR.

And while the internet, mobile and social media are powerful tools to raise awareness, connect and drive sales and loyalty, they are also highly demanding and unpredictable platforms for competitors, customers and others to attack you, something that is done with real relish in China.

How big a problem online attacks are in China, what form they take, and how they should be handled is the subject of an in-depth interview just published by Forbes (and builds on comments I had earlier given to PR Week on the necessarily complex and somewhat thorny topic of PR ethics in Asia).

I hope both pieces shed some light on China’s idiosyncratic internet culture and how it can be tackled.


biz.HK, the magazine of The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (disclaimer: until recently I chaired its Communications and Marketing Committee) recently interviewed me about how companies should protect and manage their reputations online.

While wide-ranging, the interview focuses on the need to align online reputation activities with offline reputation management, an area many organisations are struggling with.

Here it is (p. 46):

And here it is on Amcham HK’s blog.




Drawing on my experiences in journalism, government, IPO-ing one of Europe’s top digital agencies, and working at WPP, I had the pleasure earlier this week of talking to early stage entrepreneurs and assorted others at Paperclip Hong Kong about the importance of building trust from the get-go.

The second half of the talk focused on online reputation, specifically how companies should handle threats on the internet and social web and draws on my book Managing Online Reputation. A single negative review, badly handled, can be disastrous for a small company so it is all the more important that business owners have a decent understanding of the many options, tools and techniques available to help them evaluate and respond to common problems.

Here’s the deck: