British PR agencies are making senior hires to strengthen their corporate reputation offerings as blue-chip clients come under threat from aggressive campaigning.
Weber Shandwick has poached Hill & Knowlton's EMEA corporate practice leader Jim Donaldson to act in a newly created post as executive vice-president corporate comms, EMEA.
At the same time, Hanover has poached Football League director of comms Gavin Megaw to head up a corporate comms division, with the aim of building it to a £2m business. Megaw is a former head of crisis management at Fleishman-Hillard. Hanover's new division will focus on the healthcare, energy, financial services, telecoms and media sectors.
The two hires follow increasingly aggressive campaigns by groups such as UK Uncut, which is targeting alleged tax avoiders.
The organisation has become well-known for its successful use of social media to co-ordinate protests on high streets across the UK. The group has listed its targets as Vodafone, Arcadia Group, HSBC, Grolsch, HMV, Boots, Barclays and KPMG.
Hanover MD Charles Lewington said he was responding to a growing requirement for 'early warning software, analysts to interpret, first-class consultants to advise on responses and policy specialists to provide counsel on the political fall-out'.
Meanwhile, corporates are also said to be watching out for Wikileaks targeting them. Founder Julian Assange told Forbes magazine in November he is sitting on secret documents relating to the private sector.
One senior agency source told PRWeek that boardrooms across the UK were fearful of web-based organisations such as Wikileaks and UKUncut. 'A lot of corporate Britain is running scared,' said the source.
A number of experienced corporate PR professionals backed up this assertion.
Chatsworth CEO Nick Murray-Leslie said: 'Financial risk and exposure has dominated the agenda of the c-suite for the past couple of years. Reputitional risk is now in the ascendency.
'What makes Wikileaks so dangerous? Quite simply, because it has changed everything. It has opened an extended risk front to the business world, that of almost instant, global reputational risk.
'The organisation has successfully appropriated a name which is similar to one of the most popular free source information sites available – Wikipedia - which has delivered it almost immediate brand credibility and acceptance.
Murray-Leslie said companies should respond by monitoring employee sentiment and engaging in dialogue. He added: 'Not being evil helps but if you can't do that, prepare, prepare, prepare. Reform and culture change can often be better than legal recourse.'
Hill & Knowlton MD of issues & crisis Tim Luckett agreed that the internet was making corporate reputations more vulnerable.
He said: 'Fundamentally, the web not only exposes businesses to a far broader range of critics, but also makes it easier to bring them together. Add to that, the reputational legacy of such incidents via the Google Effect and there becomes a significant threat to your brand.
'The way in which activists are mobilising has changed - these online organisations have increasing influence and subsequent offline power.
'As for change, organisations must realise that such tactics are here to stay and consequently need to spend a proportionate amount of time and effort monitoring social media and taking part in the conversation with such groups to best shape and influence developments before it's too late.'
Edelman head of digital Marshall Manson said that in the current climate trust and reputation had become just as important to purchase decision as product quality and price.
'Businesses must reflect this in their comms, and indeed their behaviour,' he said. 'And agencies must reflect it in their offers and their advice.'
UK Uncut The grassroots organisation has held sit-down protests against firms it accuses of avoiding tax payments
Wikileaks Expected to turn on the private sector in 2011. Founder Julian Assange told Forbes in November he is sitting on secret documents relating to the private sector
Greenpeace The charity's recent targets include Nestle in March 2010