Keep emotions in check when reacting to a smear campaign

When reputation is ultimately all an individual or company has, ensuring it stays intact is critical.

HONG KONG - A senior executive at a major consumer-facing corporation in Hong Kong probably felt the truth of the above statement recently. The individual (whom PRWeek cannot name for legal reasons) became the target of an offline ‘poison pen’ campaign, with placards fixed to lampposts around the city alleging sexual misconduct.

The A4-size notice bore an image of the individual and presented his name, job title, and place of employment. It proceeded to allege, in a form of English and Chinese, extramarital affairs and misuse of a position of power for sexual gratification.

Although crude, the notices amount to public defamation of character, whether the allegations are true or not, and are potentially damaging to the reputation of individual and company. Many people, and indeed corporations, would be at a loss as to how to respond to such a situation.

The first thing, say crisis experts, is to keep emotions under control. "Don’t overreact," says Charles Lankester, SVP of reputation management at Ruder Finn in Hong Kong. "It might sound simplistic, but it’s important, and applies to any smear campaign."

Lankester points out that the veracity of an anonymous accusation, whether on a lamppost or online, should always be considered suspect. But of course, not all who see it will exercise critical judgement. Emma Smith, Asia chief executive of MHP Communications, says that if the allegation starts offline, the parties concerned should assess its spread online.

"It’s vital that a company knows on a real-time basis if the story is getting any traction," Lankester says. Smith adds that if the allegation is disseminating online, the parties in question have the right to demand that whatever social-media platform is hosting it take it down.

"The last thing I’d advise anyone to do is to start their own [counter] campaign. Take the high ground," she says.

Lankester advises putting the most energy into identifying the "troll". But it’s also very important that the company in question speaks to the individual whose reputation is under attack to assess the facts, he says. He also suggests involving lawyers and the communications department in the proceedings as soon as possible.

Indeed, Charlie Pownall, an online reputation expert also based in Hong Kong, says that the communications and legal department should be "joined at the hip" to ensure a measured response and to prevent reputational damage from escalating.

"Until the company has all the facts, it will never be able to deal with the situation effectively," Lankester notes. "A key part is the psychology of the case—trying to understand the motivation and any real or perceived grievance. People don’t [post anonymous allegations about someone] for no reason."

In some cases, the allegations might be true. It is then up to the company to make a judgement call. "I’ve seen so many employees make poor decisions," Smith says. "The company then has to consider: do we want someone like that working for our firm?"

Having processed the facts, what next? An internal memo might not always be advisable. "Keep in mind that it’s likely to become public," Lankester says. "Memos often leak and become bigger than the original controversial element."

It is important, however, to know how to respond to any external enquiries relating to the case. In most cases, at least in the initial stages, it is best to acknowledge that the allegation is circulating, but not to pass any comment on it. "It is [the individual’s] personal affair," Smith says.

One thing to bear in mind as an individual, she adds, is that the media tends to be more understanding of people who have taken the time to build a relationship with it in the first place.

"It’s a bit late to be building a reputation when something happens," she says. "Have advocates beforehand."

In short, a company must be clear about its position. It should be prepared to tackle a call from your largest client, Lankester advises. But all communications—to any stakeholders—must be factual, calm and decisive, he says.

"Essentially, be cautious about what you say officially, internally and externally," Lankaster says. "Put nothing out there to make the story bigger. Keep it short; show leadership. Keep the prevailing thought in mind that less is usually more … Employees will look at how a company responds because [the same thing could happen to] them. It’s far from simple, but overreaction is a strategically catastrophic decision."

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