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Social media

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.

I was recently asked by Strategic RISK Asia magazine for my thoughts on the reputational risks arising from the use of personal social media accounts by employees.

I was glad to share my views as it is a topic that comes up regularly with clients and prospects.

It is also one I explored in my book Managing Online Reputation.

Below is my full response to the journalist; the published article is here.

SusanAFowler_Uber

Which risks are created for firms from employees’ personal social media accounts?

Research consistently shows the top risk of social media to companies is damage to reputation. Rank-and-file employees may be seen as the most trusted sources of information on, and credible advocates for an organisation, yet the flip side is equally true: inappropriate, offensive, unethical or defamatory behaviour by those seen as the most authentic embodiment of a company has a nasty habit of spilling into the broader public domain and bringing their employer’s name and image into disrepute. 

Understandably, much of the focus concerning employee social media profiles is on internal threats. However, companies underestimate the external risks associated with these accounts, notably the increased risk of social engineering to access personal and/or company information, and greater opportunities for identity theft as a way to embarrass an individual – and perhaps their employer – in public.

Which types of posts from employees on personal social media accounts are the most damaging (political statements, unprofessional conduct, criticising the company etc.?)

The degree of damage depends on factors such as the nature of the post, the resonance of the topic, the credibility of the employee, whether the post is seen as accidental or deliberate, and the visibility and reputation of the company. It can be particularly damaging if it is seen to involve confidential or highly sensitive information, racist, sexist or discriminatory comments, the harassment or smearing of colleagues, customers or competitors, or which point to corporate hypocrisy or double standards – all of which will quickly attract negative coverage and can result in legal action, financial penalties, or lost sales.

Much hinges on the local political, social and media context. For example, political and social online activism across Asia is less widespread but certain topics are guaranteed to raise hackles and with civil society gaining ground and personal online activism on the rise, a loose statement can prove immensely damaging. And while smears are commonly regarded as below the belt in the west, in China and elsewhere there is a pervasive culture of trashing other individuals, companies and just about anything and everything else, many of which are surprisingly overt. Many die at birth, but others take on a life on a life of their own if the employee is trusted. It often also helps if the target is western.

How can firms mitigate these risks? Is employee training necessary, or does it need to go further into rules in contracts and disciplinary action?

The blurring of employees’ personal and professional lives online presents a tricky challenge for any organisation. While some companies continue to limit workplace access to social media, or to personal social media accounts during working hours, most accept that the great majority of their people have a personal presence on social media and understand it is unreasonable, and in some countries illegal, to clamp down on or to monitor personal online activities, particularly outside of working hours.

At one level, the risks of rogue social employees can be reduced by having strong values and culture, ensuring good behaviour across the corporate ecosystem, having a healthy working environment and fair compensation, and being open and honest whenever possible. Understanding that there is little to stop aggrieved employees sounding off on employer review sites such as Glassdoor, or taking to anonymous workplace communities like Blind, many companies are also strengthening employee reviews, complaint procedures, and putting in place more substantive and constructive exit interviews.

It is also essential to have strong social media governance, most obviously in the form of a corporate social media policy and a set of guidelines that spell out the expected parameters of online behaviour, highlights the link between poor personal behaviour and reputational damage on the company, and which threatens disciplinary action for breaches of policy. Many companies now refer to or embed these terms in employment, contractor and supplier contracts, and feature them in formal onboarding processes.

Of course, social media policies and guidelines must also be understood and lived, which is where training and communication come in. The challenge is often that these dry, rather formulaic policy documents have many grey areas. For example, is it appropriate for employees to talk about, let alone criticise, their employers’ activities on Facebook and, if so, when and how? Should they respond to third-party criticism of the company on their social profiles, or the open web? Are there any topics employees should expressly steer clear of, even in their personal lives? Should employees be talking up their company’s products on social media and, if so, how? In what circumstances (if any) should an employee use his employer as an online platform for his own personal activities and views? Smart organisations have training programmes that get into these awkward nooks and crannies, bring them alive, clearly spell out the dos and don’ts, and issue regular reminders.

Companies like L’Oreal have taken this educational approach a step further by hand-holding their people personally through the social media maze, showing them the merits and risks of different kinds of social media strategies, platforms and profiles, and teaching them how to segment users, limit access to their opinions and content, and keep their profiles secure. Corporate personal branding programmes not only help employees and their employers protect their reputations day-to-day, they also instil residual goodwill and help reduce the likelihood of alumni disparaging the company once they have moved on.

It would be great to know your thoughts on this necessarily messy and difficult topic. Is there anything you find particularly challenging about employees’ personal social media accounts? And what do you find are the best ways of minimising these risks?

A resourceful Media and Public Relations student from China at a UK university recently asked me for my thoughts on crisis communications and social media for her dissertation. In the spirit of sharing, here’s the first part of my response – the second on how crisis communications differs in Asia and the west – will be posted shortly.

The questions have been edited for clarity:

1. To what degree is social media impacting crisis communications? How is it changing traditional crisis communications?

Social media has had a significant impact on crisis communications:

  • Most obviously, news and information travel much faster, meaning organisations need to track issues and potential crises more regularly and respond more quickly when something bad happens
  • There is much more misleading and false information to track and consider, some of which is deliberate
  • Online opinion tends to be very volatile and polarised during a crisis, making it difficult to know when and how to try to manage perceptions
  • The lifecycle of crises has become much more unpredictable with so much information constantly swirling online and getting picked up by the mainstream media, and the ease with which confidential information now leaks
  • Perhaps most important, the nature of the social web means people nowadays expect organisations to be open and responsive during a crisis – which may have profound implications for crisis strategy, important at a time when many large organisations are not trusted and when the facts are unclear when a crisis first breaks.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media on crisis communications strategy?

The main advantages are that, thanks to social media:

  • Organisations now have greater insight into what various different stakeholder groups think about them and behave towards them
  • Crisis strategy and messaging can be tested and revised more or less in real-time, rather than having to commission custom market research surveys
  • Relationships with stakeholders can be handled direct, bypassing ‘traditional’ gatekeepers such the mainstream media
  • Using video, photographs and other tools, it is now possible to communicate factually and, critically in a crisis, emotionally
  • You can involve more people more closely in an organisation’s recovery once the worst of a crisis is over using crowdsourcing and other web and social media-based techniques.

On the other hand, social media presents many strategic risks and operational challenges during a crisis. These include:

  • Organisations have to respond very fast while ensuring their messages are consistent across many channels
  • Then there’s the huge volume of comments and feedback to manage, while knowing what is important and what should be left alone
  • Online opinion and feedback may be skewed, inaccurate and not as insightful or nuanced as conventional market research
  • An analogue leadership team which does not understand digital/social media and can be very jumpy during a crisis, leading to poor decision-making
  • If social media is not treated seriously and strategically, the necessary procedures and skills may not be in place before and during a crisis.

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory:

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

 

 

The web and social media have borne many wonders, yet Wikipedia, with – or perhaps despite of – its basic interface, remains something of a standout, not least because of its truly collaborative nature. Not only is it one of the most highly trafficked sites in the world, but is also surely one of the most influential, and not just among students: I have seen it quoted verbatim by journalists and bloggers.

All of which means it is particularly important that information about your company is accurate, fair and timely – something that can be challenging to ensure at the best of times and even more tricky in the context of a long-term, simmering issue, or during a high profile incident or crisis. Wikipedia expert Bill Beutler kindly shared with me his tips on how to handle Jimmy Wales’ beast in times of trouble. (He also contributed to my book Managing Online Reputation.)

VWGroup_Wikipedia

 

Here’s the first part of the interview, which was first published by Social Media Today.

UPDATE: and here’s the second.

 

Earlier this week I was pleased to be invited back to Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong to deliver a Guest Lecture on Crisis Communications. The talk was for year 1 through 4 students from the Schools of Business and Communications, and was intended to give them an overview of Crisis Communications today and some basic tips on how to respond to crises. As this was part of the students’ Digital PR module, the talk has an online focus though puts the internet and social media in a broader context.

This lecture follows naturally from my previous Lecture at the College on Online Incident Management, and includes cases on the disappearance of MH370, the atomisation of Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, the failed attempt by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation to help a stray dog from its rail tracks, and the self-destruction of Singapore blogger network Gushcloud.

Here’s a (slightly abbreviated) version of my talk:

I hope you find it useful.

 

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.

 

Concerns about privacy and piracy aside, search engines appear able to do little wrong. Google is regularly rated one of the most trusted companies in the world.

A 2013 study by media agency OMD discovered Britons trust Google as much as they do the church.

Baidu is one of the five most trusted brands in China.

Data from PR firm Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer suggests search engines are regarded as more trustworthy sources of general news and information than all other forms of media, including the traditional/mainstream media and online word of mouth/social media.

Media sources search

It is an interesting finding that raises all manner of questions for traditional news publishers, social media platform operators, marketers, public relations professionals and others. But the research also begs the question: should search engines really be classified as a media ‘source’?

I expect search engines to deliver a good range of links to relevant, timely news coverage either when a story is breaking or when I want to get a sense of what others beyond my staple news provider(s) are saying. They are also useful for conducting basic research into a company, industry or topic. Edelman’s data suggests this is also the case for many others.

EdelmanTrustBarometer_BizInfoSources_2015

While we may trust Google to dredge up a decent sample of the latest news coverage research studies consistently show we continue to trust news and information from the mainstream media, companies and brands, and through friends sharing experiences and making recommendations above other sources.

The fact that an article or video analysis is produced by a recognised journalist at the AP or BBC or by a blogger or colleague who we figure knows what he is talking about continues to determine whether we take it seriously, irrespective of whether the content is viewed on the publisher’s website, mobile app, Facebook or Google.

Edelman’s annual trust updates provide fascinating insights into the nature and dynamics of trust across the world, but in the area of media sources it seems to be comparing apples with pears.

Or am I being pedantic?

 

Two weeks to go and with the Tories and Labour in deadlock the closest British election in many years looks a nail biter. While a(nother) coalition government looks the only plausible outcome, an unusually large proportion of voters remain undecided according to pollsters.

I am one. Formerly a member of a political party, I handed in my card some years ago disillusioned with its leadership and direction. I’ll spare you which party. Despite being resident outside the UK for many years I remain eligible to vote and intend to do so. But making a choice is no easier living thousands of miles from the political melee.

Thankfully I am spared the prospect of Nigel Farage messing up my flowerbeds or crude negative advertising polluting my neighbourhood. Yet candidates should surely be looking for every vote they can muster and with an estimated 250,000 full British nationals in the province (not all of whom may be able to vote), the expat vote is not an opportunity to be sneezed at.

However I, for one, have not been approached by any political party. Not have I seen any party attempt to engage British expats here in Hong Kong in any form; in contrast to, say, Australia’s Labor party efforts during the 2013 national elections.

ALP

OK, so posters in central Hong Kong might be overkill. But surely this is where the internet and social media come into their own. A local search marketing or Facebook ad drive. A video ad on the South China Morning Post website. Someone reaching out on Twitter. All are cheap (relative to TV or poster ads), direct and can be managed at distance.

In what is meant to be the UK’s most digital election to date there’s a deafening silence this side of the world.

So come on Britain’s politicians, get your tanks on my lawn. I’m listening if you are.

 

Yesterday I was asked by my friend Stephane Prudhomme to talk to year 3 communications and journalism students at Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Management College about crisis communications and social media.

I started by looking at different types of negative situations and outlining some of the top threats posed by the web and social media, before exploring how four companies (FedEx, Applebee’s, Tesla, Gushcloud) responded to incidents and crises using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube et al.

 

I hope you find it useful.

Spending time recently with a client re-writing their crisis plan I was asked how to define a ‘social media crisis’.

Not for the first time.

There is and has been, I argued, no such thing. A crisis is a crisis.

When was the last TV crisis? Radio crisis? Or luxury magazine crisis, for that matter?

Regrettably the term continues to live on in the popular imagination.

There’s certainly plenty of interest in the term on Google:

socialmediacrisis

 

What then is a crisis?

There are many definitions. Steven Fink believes a crisis can only be classified a crisis if it satisfies all four of these questions:

  • Is the situation a precursor that risks escalating in intensity?
  • Does it risk coming under close scrutiny?
  • Will it interfere with normal business operations?
  • Will it jeopardise our public image or bottom line?

This seems an excellent way to approach the question.

If a crisis can be summed up in one word, in my experience it would be ‘Paralysis’. Organisational paralysis, that is, at the most senior level.

The massive majority of so-called ‘crises’ sloshing around in social media are issues and incidents of one sort or another, not crises.

Pin pricks and jabs, not paralysis.

Let’s hope that sharp downturn in searches for the term in late 2014 is permanent.

 

Visiting Kuala Lumpur this week to speak on crisis communications at a PR conference I was stuck by the extent to which the MH370 and MH17 disasters hung in the air, like one of the region’s putrid summer smogs.

Why, many continue to wonder, were the airline and government not better prepared?

I was fortunate to spend time with the (local Chinese-Malaysian) head of marketing at a well-known international cosmetics brand who told me that the reason the official response to MH370 left much to be desired is as much cultural and societal as political and operational.

  • For one, she said, Malaysians place great importance on maintaining ‘face’ and, despite or perhaps because of the many ethnic and religious schisms in the country, will do much to avoid conflict and shame and ensure the outward appearance of a harmonious society.
  • Second, Malaysians are a naturally garrulous people but can be poor listeners.

Being in the moment can bring much-needed perspective to a crisis. However thorough preparation makes mindfulness all the more powerful.

Here’s my presentation:

 

And here’s my take on Malaysia Airline’s response to MH370.

Enjoy!