Nearly overnight, many companies have been transformed from steel-framed monoliths to glass houses.
Risks that did not exist a decade ago are now on full display: internal emails going astray; negative online campaigns by dissatisfied customers; and online grumblings from disenchanted employees, bloggers, and anyone else who has an opinion to voice. No digital eraser exists to wipe away company missteps or misdeeds.
Today we are witnessing both the positive and negative features of this new era of transparent corporate behavior and instant communications—the possibilities for building long-lasting competitive advantage coupled with unprecedented threats to corporate reputation.
While information exists about building, safeguarding, and defending personal reputation online, there is considerably much less research from senior business leadership's point of view.
Leaders are searching for answers. How can they successfully manage their reputations in an always-on and always-open marketplace? How can they can build, enhance, and defend corporate reputation when it is continually under siege, and redefined, by online and offline communities?
Finding the answers to these questions is growing more urgent as leaders try to appease and motivate an apprehensive workforce during challenging economic times. As guardians of corporate reputation, leaders recognize that the Internet offers a wealth of opportunities for finding informed answers but also presents its fair share of risk. The key is maximizing the opportunities while minimizing the risks.
Weber Shandwick, in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), conducted a worldwide online survey of 703 senior executives from 62 countries. The survey, Risky Business: Reputations Online, addressed such issues as the vulnerability of company reputations, the resources executives rely upon to assess company reputations, the identification and prioritization of online risks to reputation, the impact of traditional and new media on reputation, the threat of employee cyber-sabotage, and—most important—the best measures for protecting a company's reputation online.
The first few months of 2009 have already been tumultuous for reputations. So what can be done?
Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick (www.webershandwick.com). She is the author of CEO Capital: A Guide to Building CEO Reputation and Company Success (2003, Wiley) and Corporate Reputation: 12 Steps to Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation (2008, Wiley). She blogs at www.reputationXchange.com.