Reputations At Risk

by Mike Kachel on October 13, 2011

On November 17, 2010, the daughter of a potential U.S. presidential candidate engaged in what was widely described as a “homophobic rant.” Why do we know about the outburst? Because 16-year-old Willow Palin chose to make her feelings known on Facebook, digital home to 750 million people. And counting.

Here’s the question: Should this incident affect Sarah Palin’s reputation? In other words, is it fair to link daughter Willow’s comments to the erstwhile Alaska governor? If you’re a parent, brother, sister, cousin or even a “personal acquaintance,” think long and hard before answering that question. The meteoric rise of digital media like blogs, Twitter and other social networking sites is making even the smallest faux pas by individuals and organizations increasingly visible, and privacy nearly obsolete.

Whether you care about your own reputation, or care for the reputation of others, the ramifications of poor decisions in today’s digital world are multiplying at an alarming rate (see: Weiner, Anthony; Lee, Christopher; Favre, Brett; and the list goes on). We could jam-pack a wiki discussing this topic, but let’s examine five developments in particular that are posing significant challenges to reputation management.

Prior to the digital age, information was shared in finite increments. Limited space and time resulted in a prioritization of news where the most important stories led and inane information rarely found its way into the public domain. Today, thanks to the proliferation of 24/7 media and the Internet’s infinite space, the “newsworthiness” test is far less stern. Information once rarely deemed fit for broad consumption now routinely finds its way into the public sphere.

A second critical development is what my friend refers to as the “cruelty of anonymity.” There was a time not long ago when disparaging the reputation of a person or an organization required you to sign your actual name before your comment was printed. Now you can use a pseudonym and deliver the harshest of criticisms with little fear of retribution, then sit back and watch as half-truths or out-and-out lies spread rapidly. Increasingly, the Internet is where reputations go to die.

Third, the quest for speed – or said differently, the need to be first, even at the expense of being right. News agencies are no longer just competing against each other, but “citizen journalists” – many of whom don’t have the same fact-checking requirements that were once routine at top-tier media organizations. This development has led some respected news organizations to post initial or partial reports before understanding the full story, even if it risks damaging a reputation in the process.

Consider the plight of Shirley Sherrod, who last year resigned her position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after news agencies quickly gave additional visibility to a blogger’s edited video that took her remarks out of context. And earlier this year, the AP quickly posted an almost unfathomable story after being duped by a faux press release purportedly from GE. That release said the company was giving back more than $3 billion of shareholder money (reportedly gained through favorable tax laws). It’s a safe bet that 20 years ago that story doesn’t see the light of day until GE officials are first given the opportunity to answer one very simple question: Really?

Fourth, a dying traditional media model is creating economic pressures that are affecting the way information is gathered and presented. Conventional news staffs once responsible for producing a single daily paper have shrunk alongside advertising revenues, yet today’s reporters are required to produce more content than ever – and produce it more quickly – for various forms of Internet consumption, including blogs, tweets, video and podcasts. Additionally, reporters are increasingly rewarded for the number of times their online stories get viewed and forwarded. Why? Because more eyeballs mean more ad dollars. And here’s what we know: mundane but important news articles don’t always garner a lot of page views, but salacious ones do. Perhaps that’s why the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that only four percent of major U.S. news coverage in 2010 was devoted to the ongoing war abroad – this despite the loss of thousands of American lives and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars. Contrast that with the number of reports about Tiger Woods’ trysts and fall from grace – for months it was virtually impossible to avoid the story.

Finally, the explosion of new media means that sharing information broadly and globally has become so easy that even legitimate news sites will occasionally re-post information without checking to see if the initial report is correct. Case in point: in 2008, United Airlines saw its stock plummet 75 percent in hours when a six-year-old story about its 2002 bankruptcy was found on a search engine, thought to be current, then posted in short order by a newspaper, an investment advisory website and then a wire service, triggering the stock’s sudden collapse. The clean up task for something like this is analogous to soaking up the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico – not only is it difficult and time consuming, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever achieve full remediation because stories live forever in cyberspace.

How can you protect yourself or your organization from this unforgiving environment? For starters, continue to be careful about what you say and what you put in writing – especially in an email or a text. Ditto for pictures, video, podcasts and other electronic forms of communications. Recognize that internal and external communications are now virtually one in the same for most organizations. You should also accept that no matter how careful you are, mistakes will happen, so gather supportive information while you still have time – not when the bullets are flying. It would also be wise to have a list of available third parties who can immediately help balance any negative views about you or your organization. And if possible, have content and photos ready to post and distribute to help drive negative stories further down the search engine list.

Another important line of defense involves setting up a robust listening platform to monitor what’s being said about your brand across the digital landscape. Despite the many tools readily available, too many companies still don’t have a consistent “listening” program in place. More than ever, it’s critical to keep abreast of what’s being said and be able to respond in a timely, effective manner before an issue becomes a full blown crisis.

Finally, remember that your ongoing efforts to create a positive, sustainable impression of your brand will encourage people to give you the benefit of the doubt, or at least a second chance, if and when an issue arises.

Managing reputation today is harder than ever. Take the time to understand why, and embrace the necessary steps to protect yourself and your organization.

Mike Kachel is Director of PR & Communications for Clifford Chance – Americas.

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