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?
Below, some of the findings of that online-reputation study as they relate to seven realities of managing online reputation in today's world—and some solutions to strengthening your reputation in the months ahead.
1. Reputation threat level is high
A striking 67% of top executives regard their company's reputation as vulnerable. This high estimate reflects executive anxiety over reputation erosion in a fiercely competitive, volatile, and unpredictable business environment.
Solution: Monitor your digital reputation regularly and embrace search engine optimization (SEO).
2. Reputations are revealed online... but not completely
Nearly all executives surveyed—98%—"use" the Internet to evaluate company reputation. However, less than 6 in 10 (57%) find the Internet "useful" for making final judgments. Considering the gap between usage and usefulness, it seems that the Internet only helps complete the full picture of a company's reputation.
Solution: The core of any successful marketing and communications program is a combination of online and offline communications ("inline")—not one or the other. Build a reputation shield in as many places as possible.
3. What... me worry?
Despite a universal preoccupation with company reputation, CEOs/chairs perceive a lower threat level to their company's reputation than those outside the corner office (56% vs. 67%, respectively).
There is a common belief that boards and CEOs are the last to know when something goes astray. Perhaps CEOs/chairs are less worried about reputation risks because they are not hearing about them until it is too late.
Solution: Executives should demand to hear the bad news, the good news, and everything in between.
4. Executives have graduated to Web 1.0
The good news is that global executives have entered the Internet era. Whether executives are searching for information on competitors, vendors, suppliers, or partners, company websites are the primary source for informing them about a company's standing and worthiness (99% say the corporate website is their leading source for these matters). Executives also believe that having a well-designed website is a surefire way to keep reputations intact.
Solution: Road-test the user experience of your company website in terms of functionality, interactivity, and transparency. Ask yourself whether employees would agree that the website mirrors what it is like to be employed at your workplace.
5. Executives are blind to Web 2.0
Global executives say that traditional media (television, radio, and newspapers) play a greater role in deciding reputational fates than new media (websites, blogs, and social networks).
To an alarming degree, global executives vastly overlook new media's potential as a reputation spoiler—negative references in online videos, social networking sites, Wikipedia, and photo-sharing sites. They are dangerously overlooking the fast-rising Web 2.0 new media and social networking tools that can literally rally friends and foes overnight. Less than 10% regard Web 2.0 as a threat to reputation. In addition, executives in all regions estimate that only 49% of the information in corporate blogs is accurate.
Solution: Enlist your executive in a digital boot camp. Help them plan for the worst-case online scenario now. Explain that "Hope is not a plan."
6. Greatest online threats to reputation
Global executives were asked about what keeps them up at night when it comes to online threats. They regard confidential or leaked information appearing online (41%), disgruntled customers (41%), employee backlash (38%), and emails that can be used against the company (33%) as the top online risks to their company's reputation.
Today, the Internet provides innumerable platforms for current and former employees to leak information externally and strike, usually anonymously, at a company's reputation. Embedded employee "journalists" lurk behind every office door and cubicle wall.
In addition, a large 87% of global executives admit to having erroneously sent or received at least one electronic message (private email, text, or Tweet). The unintended and unexpected consequences of misdirected electronic messages can taint, sometimes permanently, company reputations—in seconds.
Solution: Make sure your company has social-media policies and guidelines. Regularly monitor and respond to employee satisfaction surveys in order to keep complaints from going online. Visit complaint sites. When all is said and done, a company's culture is ultimately its best protection.
7. Online reputation management (ORM) comes of age
After paying strict attention to employee satisfaction levels, executives need to monitor what is being said about them online and offline. Blogs, wikis, social-network spaces, and discussion boards are frequently home to distress signals and need close monitoring to keep leaders up to date on their company's reputation.
Solution: With today's tools, robust reputation management systems are now available. Leaders do not need to have their company reputations defined by information that's out of their control, nor do they need to be the last to know about positive news, or even worse, negative news. Nearly 6 out of 10 (58%) global executives say they expect their online reputation management to be more rigorous (59%) over the next three years. Now is the time to get started.