09 Dec 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in Journalism, 0 Comments

Reputation management in times of social media

When the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) organised a conference in Brussels on Regaining Trust – Reputation Management through Strategic Communication, I was kindly invited to join a panel. Its title: The Internet as a Reputation Trap.

I, however, would not call the Internet a reputation trap. It has obvious risks, given that people can easily circulate false statements and accusations. But in general it rather serves as a seismic early warning system for things that went wrong – either in terms of an organisation’s communication, or regarding its products and services.

If anyone makes a legitimate complaint or suggestion about your product, or if somebody accuses your company of wrongdoing, you now have the opportunity to learn about it in real time – and, if necessary, orchestrate an appropriate response.

Corporate communication professionals, though, still have not yet fully embraced the concept of the social web (ie, blogs and the likes of Facebook and Twitter). A recent EJC survey showed that public relations workers monitor the blogosphere significantly less that journalists do, thus putting the latter at an advantage.

This was corroborated by a study the PR research firm Edelman presented at the EACD meeting: There is a major discrepancy between how corporate staffers use the social web on a personal basis and in their professional capacity. Apparently, the job-related confidence level is not yet very high – except if you are a journalist.

Why? I suggested that, aside from the normal pangs large organisations experience when implementing new procedures, this lag may also be rooted in a general mindset: While journalists are always after the next scoop and thus eagerly adopt to new opportunities even if they fall in the quick-and-dirty category, many PR people still worry mainly about preventing any kind of scoop relating to their clients. Hence, it would be high time for them to get pro-active on all levels as a matter of routine.

Hans Koeleman, the corporate communications director of incumbent Dutch telco KPN, agreed, but emphasised that using the social web in businesses requires slowly acquainting staff with new techniques.

He reported that, in fact, KPN had recently conducted an internal social media experiment that was open for most of the company’s 40,000 employees. Staffers were encouraged to chat about a set of themes and issues. In order to encourage frank and uninhibited exchange, they were allowed use nicknames. It was a constructive first step, said Koeleman, and there were only very few obscenities or otherwise offensive remarks.

In the end, this could effectively mean that once unleashed at the social web at large, KPN’s employees could become 40,000 ambassadors for the company. And I would even contend that if there were some among them who are disgruntled with their employer or ill-behaved, this would in actual fact increase the street credibility of KPN.

Koeleman shared the following: “There was a person driving around the Netherlands in a bus that said ‘I hate KPN’ in huge letters on the sides. Then some co-workers asked me to do something about it. But I answered, ‘Well, what can I do, maybe he really hates KPN.’”

I conclude from this that companies’ public relations might want to go for the same kind of radical impartiality that was discussed at the BBC as a new approach to citizen journalism: Just let employees as well as customers say what they want in the first place, and then answer or react where necessary. Such openness will finally provide businesses with the opportunity to catch up with the journalistic community and to enter into a more balanced and mutually beneficial relationship with the media as well as with the general public.

I concede that it probably takes indeed a KPN-style deployment of an entire firm’s workforce to really cover all the widely distributed bases of the social web – all the Twitter accounts, different thematic groups on Facebook, competing social networks such as Orkut or StudiVZ, and, not least, the different languages. Not even a very well-staffed corporate communications department would be able to do this anywhere near as comprehensively without the active help of many other employees.

Of course, this notion of communicative openness must not be confused with total disclosure of trade secrets, patents or legal issues. That a company must take measures to protect these has not changed under the auspices of the social web. After all, industrial espionage targets employees in their private lives as well. Undercover agents may be placed inside crucial departments. Hackers attack a company’s IT wing. Even legitimate internal e-mails may be used in court proceedings. A company therefore needs a sense of belonging and ownership among its staffers. Where such trust exists, it can just as easily be extended to Internet-based communication as well.

From a journalistic perspective, public trust in a firm or public institution is best reasserted through an open and dialogue-oriented approach – open for honest opinions, open for a diversity of points of view, and without any stifling of negative statements (except of offensive language and slander under a clearly-stated policy).

The communication ecosystem will cope with false accusations and annoying crackpot statements automatically. I predict that this would be more effective in the long run than the classic, centralised, control-the-message approach. However, it will require a major effort on the part of the organisations.

If I were a corporate communications manager, I would at least start a few pilot projects, such as KPN has done on a large scale internally, or engage in a Facebook group pertinent to my field of professional interest.

On the Brussels panel, blogger Jon Worth quoted an encouraging experience with – of all entities – the European Commission’s London Representation. The office responded to a question of his via Twitter within an hour, just in time so he could use the answer in a radio interview he was doing immediately after. Wow.