Managing reputation for a brand or a company at the turn of this decade has been challenging for a variety of reasons:
First: Everything has become faster and global, from news to information exchange, movements, trends and issues. Many of the recent grassroots movements and major issues, such as Brexit, #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion, have been facilitated by today’s connected technologies and platforms, often catching organizations and institutions off guard. And the new generations, from Gen-Z today to Gen Alpha at the end of this decade, expect constant online interaction and engagement, not just one-way messages.
Second: There are growing expectations of transparency from politicians and governments, customers and consumers, civil society and the public, all amplified by traditional and social media. Transparency can also be thrust upon organizations as a result of data breaches, whistle-blower complaints, and employee activism, all facilitated due to the digitalization of assets and communications. The rise of misinformation and disinformation also force organizations and individuals to communicate publicly.
Third: There is a general decline in trust. Organizations and institutions used to be trusted and were taken at their word in times of crisis. To date governments, businesses, NGOs and media have become distrusted globally. The general public is sensing increasing inequity and unfairness overall.
And now we are faced with Covid-19. Many sectors have shifted their activities and communication online. Half of humanity has been in some form of confinement and started spending much more time online than ever before.
The online reputation of any brand, company or organization has become more important than ever. Here are the five fundamental principles for building and managing reputation online:
- Be transparent and authentic
Transparency and honesty apply to all aspects of online communication including the messaging, the messenger and the medium. The truth will always come out online. Authenticity is something that the public craves, and it is what can truly build a reputation. This requires consistent and long-term communication that is backed up by action. It’s not something that can be achieved with a single campaign.
During the recent protests against racial inequality and injustice, we saw a number of organizations criticized for appearing to jump on the bandwagon of #BlackLivesMatter. They faced a backlash because their messaging felt hollow and disingenuous, and because it did not match their real-life actions (e.g. diversity in their leadership team).
- Be coherent and relevant
What you communicate online should reflect your brand, products or services, or your profession and personality.
As with any good story, campaign or statement, you need to understand what matters to your audiences. To do this, you need to listen. Ensure that you have the right social listening tools in place to effectively monitor and follow conversations online.
Think of ways to adapt or tailor your content to what is topical right now. Sticking to routine messaging while the situation on the ground is changing can make you seem tone-deaf and inconsiderate.
For example, when a leading Lebanese university tweeted an article extolling the virtues of coming to Lebanon to study and live, it received a barrage of sarcastic replies in return. At this point in time, the country was mired in a deep financial crisis.
- Continue to build relationships
Reputation is not something you own: it is something that is bestowed upon you by others. There is a person behind every digital presence. Creating and building relationships with other people is therefore key, both online and offline. Remember, your reputation in the real-world will follow you online.
In the digital domain you can connect and interact with almost anyone, so take the time to understand which audiences are relevant to you and map out your stakeholders.
- Be visible and timely
You need to be seen and heard to build a reputation and a follower base. Not only should you plan ahead for what you will announce and communicate, you also need to react quickly to new conversations while staying true to your brand, tone and messaging.
The challenge is that conversations and issues evolve rapidly online, just like today’s 24/7 news cycle. If a problem is not addressed quickly, within hours you can find yourself overwhelmed with a flurry of voices across social, digital and traditional media. In the worst-case scenario, your key stakeholders will have responded and taken action before you have.
Companies and leaders are increasingly expected to take a public stance on issues important to the public, and this pressure can come from within and outside the organization.
In the case of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and protests, some companies that initially did not feel good about making public statements were eventually forced to do so by their employees.
- Prepare to manage challenging issues
At some point you will be faced with a difficult issue that needs to be addressed or come under scrutiny and criticism for your actions. How you respond and communicate in these situations can define whether you keep and build your reputation or lose it altogether.
Crisis preparedness must extend not only to online crisis communications, but also to thinking about the reputational threats that can emerge online.
Think through different scenarios. While most organizations probably did not have a crippling global pandemic on their crisis scenarios list, they should have considered extended business continuity issues and the ways in which they would adapt, respond and communicate with their various stakeholders using digital and social media channels. Unfortunately, we saw many companies scrambling to figure out their communication with internal and external audiences.
Lastly, once you have your crisis communications team, processes and plans in place, make sure you test them with a crisis exercise to determine how you are likely to fare.
While there are some best-practice principles to follow, managing online reputation feels more like an art than science.
What other recommendations would you give?