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Managing Online Reputation

16 Dec

Managing Online Reputation: How to protect your company on social media
By Charlie Pownall
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 236 pages

Managing Online ReputationIt seems to me there are two types of book about public relations: the analytical and the anecdotal.

Books by academics tend to be strong in the first and weak in the second. Books by practitioners are usually the other way round.

I continue to read on in the hope of one day finding the perfect balance between the two.

Before giving my verdict on this contribution, let’s review what Charlie Pownall does well.

He brings an international perspective (he divides his time between Hong Kong and London) and the case studies cover tourist boards, airlines and global brands.

He has real-world experience (he’s a consultant and trainer) and he writes well.

His chapter on activists v corporates is a highlight of the book. While Greenpeace v Shell may not be an original choice, the incident he illustrates (a parody attack) is fresh – and the conclusion he reaches (in praising Shell’s response) is surprising.

The book is well structured, reviewing the threats, then discussing the angry mob (customers, activists etc) before turning to handling crises.

But is this book needed? How could you write about managing reputation or about handling crises in 2015 without discussing digital and social media and 24/7 news?

If it’s a book about reputation management, where’s the discussion of reputation concepts (who owns it, how to measure it)?

If it’s a book about digital and social media, why no discussion of the principle and practice of editing Wikipedia entries, a major talking point this year?

Though useful to public relations students and practitioners (there’s a lifetime’s experience here, and the case studies are very recent), this book is written for senior executives who must have sleepless nights over the risks to reputation.

The message is that they need competent advisers to help them navigate the challenges ahead. So who can they turn to? Lawyers? IT experts? Risk managers? Management consultants? PR consultants?

The answer is all of the above, and the question is not answered about the role of the public relations adviser. Though the need for good PR advice is more important than ever, it’s not clear whether PR consultants will be the winners.

Pownall’s approach appears to be to avoid the term public relations. Though he’s worked for Burson-Marsteller in the past, he seems to find the term too limiting and too discredited. Here’s what he says when discussing Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks:

‘Many people consider reputation management to be a function of public relations first and foremost. Yet public relations people are closely associated with spin doctoring and the manipulation of the media, search engines, and anything else they can twist to their advantage.’

So how does this book score on the analysis-anecdote equation?

It’s of most value when the author gives examples. To pick one, who would have thought there could be anything new to say about Malaysia Airlines, yet Pownall has some insights into the early handling of the disappearance of flight MH370.

I find it lighter in analysis – perhaps because a consultant’s advice is necessarily specific to the circumstances and not readily generalisable. There is a chapter on defining online reputation threats, but I find Andrew Griffin‘s framework more practical.

This is a timely and sensible book, and the author provides a useful critique of reading too much into social media conversations:

‘It is … tempting to consider your online reputation as your reputation, a kind of mirror image of what people think about you in the real world. Tempting, but mistaken. An organization’s reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders view it, from customers, employees, and investors to government, investors [sic], and suppliers, each of which can have very different expectations. But online conversations are usually dominated by discussions about products and services by customers and prospective customers, while other stakeholder voices are voiced less frequently. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator, pension fund manager, or buy-side analyst actively discussing a company on Facebook?’

Is not this distinction between a customer-centric view and a stakeholder view a key distinguisher between marketing and public relations?

Pownall may protest, but this book demonstrates the continuing importance of public relations.

Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

Key themes for 2011

8 Jan

Looking back on 2010 allows us to predict some of the main talking points for the year ahead.


I have previously argued that the Stockholm Accords were a milestone event. This document qualitatively articulates the value that public relations provides to organisations at a macro level.

But can we quantify this value? The hyperactive and always challenging David Phillips will attempt this at a conference this year, from his perspective that the PR business has been failing to reach its full potential for years.

Though these questions may sound academic, this will be a year in which practitioners in all sectors will need to prove their value to their clients and employers. So they would be well advised to take note of these discussions.

Within higher education, the new fees regime from 2012 will challenge universities to demonstrate the value of their degree courses. My humble effort is a project to document how graduates have benefited from their PR degrees over the past two decades.


Remember Gordon Brown forgetting his mic during the election campaign? The problem was the disconnect revealed between the public and private person (a problem some of his senior colleagues had been concerned about for years).

Now consider the implications of WikiLeaks (and the parliamentary expenses scandal). These challenge the assumption of private, and make a presumption in favour of information being public. We've not heard the last of the tussle between public and private, national security and civil liberties. (There's also a civil liberties argument in favour of less being known about us, not more).

Public relations, concerned as it is with matters in the public sphere, has a role in defining what should be known in the public interest, and what should be concealed for private reasons. Expect public relations teams to be auditing information flows and anticipating what would happen if and when the private becomes public. The intention will be to inoculate against further Gordon Brown moments.

A brief history of briefing

1 Mar

It's the public relations story of the past week, the rather sinister power of PR to damage and undermine through the process known as briefing. Even experienced hands are surprised by the viciousness as we saw from an interview with the Chancellor Alistair Darling and from the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley. As for less experienced people, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline must be regretting her tangle with the 'forces of hell'. She's enlisted the help of Max Clifford so she knows she's in a fight.

In an ideal world of transparency, there would be no unattributable briefings – and no 'off the record' comments. But we don't live in that perfect world. Briefings – often resulting in coy comments such as 'sources close to the Prime Minister confirmed' – are a form of institutionalised insider gossip that suits the media and PR people close to power.

In a world where everything is on the record, attributable and recorded, people would speak much less freely. The media would lose its privileged access to insight and information. PR people would become pointless intermediaries and the public would be less well informed. Is a lack of truth-telling preferable to truthfulness constrained by, say, anonymity? Few would argue that it is.

What principles can we apply to guide us through these murky waters? Remember that one guiding principle – to tell the truth – often conflicts with another principle – to respect client confidentiality.

  • Assume that everything can be made public. In a world of small, ubiquitous cameras and recording devices, we shouldn't assume that our comments will stay private. A private email can easily become very public.
  • Do you have good grounds for keeping something private? The most obvious example is national security (the 'lives are at risk' argument). But there are others: commercial negotiations could be scuppered if made public, so jobs could be at risk. There are also competitive reasons not to disclose future product developments. It may even be illegal to use privileged information as you could be convicted of insider dealing.
  • Non-attributable: do you have a good reason for keeping your name out of the story beyond saving your job and reputation? The answer is when you believe it's in the public interest for information to be made known, but the information would be compromised if its source were made public.
  • What is 'off-the-record'? The simple answer is that nothing is off the record, so don't use it. But there are occasions when there are conflicting principles. We saw this with the MMR vaccine when former Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to say whether his youngest child had received the vaccine so as not to breach the child's right to privacy. Yet this risked undermining the government's case that the vaccine was safe, so the decision was taken to brief senior journalists on an 'off the record' basis. A much better phrase is 'background briefing': is it important to explain the wider context that requires potential breaches of confidentiality or national security? Is the briefing the lesser of two evils?

Corporate reputation management: Nestle

8 Nov

Here are some links for a case study we'll be exploring in class on Monday.

What is Nestle best known for? Confectionery (KitKat) and coffee (Nescafe) are the most recognisable of its many brands.

What about the company's strategic direction? Nestle says it is 'the world's leading nutrition, health and wellness company' and that it is committed to increasing the nutritional value of its products while improving the taste. The UK site is more explicit, claiming it's 'putting health and wellness at the heart of our business'.

As The Economist explores this week, this is a bold claim for a chocolate company ('The unrepentant chocolatier'). What are the risks and challenges arising from this focus?

We'll be analysing whether this corporate strategy is consistent with what we can know of the organisation's culture and values. How should this strategy influence corporate communications?

And then there's the long-running saga of the promotion of infant formula in the developing world. Nestle defends its actions as responsible and agrees in most cases that 'breast is best'. Yet the campaign isn't going away, and has become a defining issue for anti-globalisation activists. What can and should the company do about this? What effect could this have on its reputation, particularly in light of the focus on health and wellness?

Remembering Bhopal

8 Aug

The statistics are still shocking, 25 years on from the world's worst ever industrial accident – the gas leak at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India. According to Mick Brown's detailed and moving account in the Telegraph Magazine 'exact numbers are unknown, but most estimates agree that about 8,000 people died from poisoning within 72 hours of the gas leaking into the air. An Amnesty International report published in 2004 concluded that a further 15,000 people had died in the years afterwards as a direct result of long-term gas-related effects, and that 10,000 people continued to suffer from chronic… illnesses.'

Compare this with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, 'estimated to have caused 57 direct deaths, with some 4,000 additional deaths from cancer among the… most highly exposed people.'

Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), Zeebrugge / Townsend Thoresen (1987), Lockerbie / Pan Am (1988), Kegworth / British Midland (1989) – note how many of the disaster scenarios remembered (and used as case studies) today date back to the 1980s. They're highly memorable to those of my generation – but I have to keep reminding myself that most current students weren't yet born then.

How we learn: paddling pool or immersion?

29 May

Like many people involved in teaching, I like nothing more than learning something new myself. It's a pleasant bonus when the lesson comes from a student.

There's a lesson for me in the apparent contradiction in what one of our placement year students writes about how to learn about two areas of public relations practice.

On crisis communications, she writes: 'crisis is an area that you can only gain experience from when you are thrown in at the deep end'. Yet, on social media just a page later: 'I spoke to a lecturer regarding the lack of social media tuition at university and the opinion was that since we are of a younger generation … we are assumed to already have this knowledge. This is not true and there is an academic gap that needs to be addressed.'

So, for one area of public relations it's 'learning by doing'; in another, it's 'back to the classroom'. This contradiction is the subject of a paper on 'teaching social media' I'm jointly presenting at the Stirling 21 conference in September, so this is a timely contribution.

Crisis handling at the speed of light

11 May

A new Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism paper (free pdf) by BBC newsreader Nik Gowing discusses the challenges of information control in the era of news 24 and citizen journalism.

He's right. 'In a crisis there is a relentless and unforgiving trend towards an ever greater information transparency.' He characterises the dilemmas facing institutions in the F3 formula:
  • Should they be first to enter the information space?
  • How fast should they do it?
  • How flawed might their remarks and first positions turn out to be?

This formula leads to some sound recommendations on crisis communications and Gowing addresses the waves of attention on issues triggered traditional news outlets and the 'civilian surge' of real-time information.

His discussion is based on major international news stories that make headlines on BBC News 24. But everyone can learn from these lessons and he's clearly writing with public relations and corporate communications people in mind.

Among those who have much to learn are those dismissing the so-called mainstream media and talking up social media phenomena such as YouTube and Twitter. They will learn that the era of 'ambient news' is as old as the radio, but accelerated with rolling television news from the 1980s onwards. The relationship between mainstream and social media is clearly symbiotic rather than exclusive (either-or).

The Domino’s effect

16 Apr

The video that caused the storm is no longer available at YouTube, but the New York Times reports the maelstrom the company now finds itself in. 'As Domino’s is realizing, social media has the reach and speed to turn tiny incidents into marketing crises.'

More links and analysis, as usual, from Neville Hobson.

When social media costs business

18 Feb

In a perfect – but negative – example of Tom Murphy’s PR hype cycle, a firm has lost a multi-million pound long-term contract thanks to social media.

First came the videos posted on YouTube (see links from story in The Sun below) showing building contractors larking around on a construction site.

Then came the mass media exposure: The Sun ran the story (and showed the videos in its online version) and connected the workers to NG Bailey. Then the BBC picked it up. Next word of mouth (I’ve also heard details of this from a non-media source.)

The third act followed. Trade title Building reports that the Morrisons supermarket chain (the construction site was thought to be one of theirs) has as a result ended a 30-year, multi-million pound relationship with Bailey.

Bailey (no relation to this blog’s author) appears unwilling to comment though the company is aware that ‘communication is the key to the success of any business.’ Presumably the contractual details are still with the lawyers.

UPDATE: The company published this statement on 21 February.