How to Stop Your Reputation Getting an (Undeserved) Digital Trashing

Hidden deep inside every single one of us is a wayward child with a rock in his fist, hungry for that delicious sound of breaking glass.

As we gaze at the shiny display windows where celebrities cavort in public view, the urge to throw that rock is unbearable. No surprise then, that in the digital world schadenfreude (or delight in the misfortunes of others) is now a primary driver of mass social media traffic.

It’s hard to deny that prurience, gossip and not a little lifestyle envy lie behind Twitter’s current success. Thanks to the network’s viral power, the ease with which personal reputations can be shattered has attained frightening dimensions.

The rich or famous who richly deserve to be shamed, humbled or exposed, have got it coming to them … fast. No one’s privacy is worth more than 140 characters, with TMZ lurking just around the corner.

It looks like such much harmless fun to retweet the latest revelations about Charlie Sheen’s drug-fuelled frenzies or New York State congressman Anthony D. Weiner’s naughty pictures. Tittle-tattle about soccer-players who are paid to take vacations in Dubai, advertising themselves in wraparound shades or bulbous underwear, is all cheerful grist to the Twittermill.

But what about those who don’t deserve this digital trashing?

There’s a growing body of evidence that when it comes to reputations, social networking may indiscriminately sweep up the innocent with the guilty, the good with the bad… and it’s getting uglier by the day.

This can affect the reputations not only of perfectly respectable individuals, but of corporations that may not have put a foot wrong. Online reputations need managing on a daily basis.

Take the case of Roger Boyes, the highly distinguished Berlin correspondent of the London Times, author of several books and a leading expert on Germany. In March, Boyes wrote an ill-fated piece entitled “Vienna Boys choir caught up in sex abuse scandals.”

The blogs and tweets suddenly went into overdrive, explicitly linking Boyes with paedophilia in all his top Google hits. Boyes told the BBC in an interview that his “crime” was not that he investigated serious allegations, but that in Britain’s colourful street argot, “Roger Boyes” is itself slang for paedophilia.

The funny name joke went viral. Some commentators used the incident as an opportunity to attack the much-disliked paywall policy of his employer, the Ties. Others just got snide about the name.

Boyes said that in the end he had to hire an online reputation management expert to “clear his name.” That involved setting up a Facebook page, creating a new website, signing up for LinkedIn, posting a biographical YouTube video. And using blogs and Twitter to post links to these sites. Most likely, an army of teenagers in Hanoi were also paid to click on positive links until the “bad” stuff sank to page 20 of Boyes’ Google profile. How much did all that cost him?

There’s no sign yet of such egregious happenings in the corporate world, but it won’t be long before social networking mavericks and big business go head-to-head in the reputation stakes.

Germany’s Daimler-Benz has already been in the wars. Forbes reported in May that the German automaker had succeeded in forcing Facebook to shut down a discussion group called “Daimler Colleagues against the Stuttgart 21.”

This was one focus of popular opposition to a huge development scheme planned for Daimler’s home-town, which will partly replace a popular park with a train station. Text on the (now-defunct) FB page reputedly slated Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche as being “at the head of a pack of liars.” Another report said that Daimler employees who had “liked” the offending page were called in by group HR for a verbal thrashing.

What’s clear is that “after the event” online reputation management – for individuals or for corporates – isn’t enough. Putting a Band-aid on the wound after it’s infected won’t help. Companies need to see that protecting and caring for their reputations, both off and online, is a strategic priority. In order to protect their brand value, they need to have a proper plan about what to do when a reputational crisis develops.

And that doesn’t just mean making sure a few responsible executives have some “crisis communications” training. If you don’t have a plan, there’s not much to communicate when the reputational fur really starts flying.

A good crisis management plan will have analysed real or potential threats to the company, its brand and the integrity of its executives. These days good crisis management plans try to take a holistic view of all real or potential threats to (or from) their products, infrastructure, workforce, licence to operate, legal environment, local politics, brand value and reputation. They need to consider the “Black Swan Effect”, too.

And it’s increasingly obvious that “protecting online reputation” needs to be added to that list. Otherwise, with over 600 million Facebook accounts and 177 million Twitter users sending one billion tweets a week, the outcome could be costly.

Protecting value by caring for reputation – online as well as offline – is the new management priority.

Richard House


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