Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick - Beware of the 'badvocates'

To protect your corporate reputation online, you need to keep closing the window for sabotage.

Much of the buzz over digital in PR has been about its impact on consumer marketing. But the implication for corporate reputation and communications is becoming increasingly clear. The internet means information is readily available and has the ability to permanently tarnish a company's reputation, and protest groups have been early adopters. What was once an isolated individual or pressure group with no funds can now have a global platform and link up with other 'badvocates' to harm your company or organisation worldwide, 24/7.

A recent Weber Shandwick study, Risky Business: Reputations Online, in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit, was conducted among senior executives from 20 industries in 62 countries. It revealed that CEOs have numerous worries when it comes to the risks to reputation in an increasingly digital world. It set out a number of ways that companies can harness the power of digital and online media in order to protect and enhance their corporate reputation.

Firstly, we must ensure that we never stop listening to the concerns of our employees; monitoring satisfaction levels and making sure that all issues are sufficiently responded to in a timely manner. This will help reduce the risk of active 'badvocates' - disgruntled employees sending rogue emails, posting slanderous comments online or leaking confidential information. On the other hand, satisfied employees, who are often a company's most loyal advocates, are the best antidote for reputation failure. Good internal comms, especially in trying economic times, is a key tool to minimise employee unrest.

Also, we must never make the mistake of underestimating the power of individual online activity. Employee blogs, Twitter pages and Facebook groups are just as important (owing to the rise in prominence of social networking sites) as corporate websites and should not be overlooked in terms of their ability to shape opinions. In order to effectively gauge their online reputation, companies should consider these portals of equally high importance as their own or a newspaper's website.

Trying to stop negative information spreading online is not always wise. - Instead, we must acknowledge that reputation assassins in their many shapes and forms are hard at work out there and the real test is how the incident is subsequently handled.

A key example is the Domino's pizza employee scandal that broke through a YouTube video earlier this year (a group of staff filmed themselves doing some rather unpleasant things with pizza ingredients). Instead of issuing press releases and back-pedalling to limit the reputational damage, Domino's released an apologetic YouTube video response featuring company president Patrick Doyle, and set up a Twitter page to answer customer queries.

Using a number of digital comms channels and knowing how to effectively engage audiences has never been as important, and it can act as an instantaneous medium that enables you to reach a vast, targeted audience.

Finally, organisations must ensure their corporate mantra is 'inline' and what is said on the company website, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites is in sync with what is said to stakeholders through the media and internally to employees.

Review your company website as if you were a prospective client or a critical competitor and ensure there is nothing contradictory or questionable that can be used against you. Also be sure your website reflects your company values. By remaining objective and using all the digital tools available, the window for scrutiny and sabotage becomes ever smaller.

Views in brief

- Which company has produced the most relevant and resonant corporate responsibility work over the past year?

Timberland has led the way in making corporate responsibility reporting more authentic and transparent, led from the top by the CEO and using web and digital-based technologies to good effect. By linking performance not just to the economic figures, but to the overall social and green performance of the company, Timberland is showing they are closely tied.

Colin Byrne is CEO, UK and Europe, Weber Shandwick

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