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Public shaming – managing reputation in the new public stockade of social media

14Apr Posted by Ina Strander

Public shaming – managing reputation in the new public stockade of social media

You've Been Publicly Shamed –  a book published last month by the British journalist and author Jon Ronson  - presents a collection of stories of how random individuals have had their lives turned upside down in what Ronson calls the public stockade of our era; social media. While the challenges facing companies on social media are not new, this new take on it made me reflect on the importance of understanding the dynamics of the media we engage in.

One much cited example from the book is the story about Justine Sacco, a successful PR professional who boarded a long-haul flight after sending an ill-formulated tweet, and landed 11 hours later to her tweet trending number one worldwide on Twitter. It read, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Sacco later claimed that it was a politically incorrect joke meant as a critique of the bubble many Americans live in, but no one seemed to get (or wanted to get) the irony.  While on the plane, one of Sacco’s 170 followers had retweeted the joke to a journalist, who further re-re-tweeted it to his 15,000 followers. The snowball started rolling, until it reached the point that her employer found it necessary to jump in to distance the company’s name from it: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” Sacco, as well as many of the other victims in Ronson’s book, lost her job and her reputation to the brutish power of Twitter.

So what differentiates the people who have experienced these types of viral scandals from the free-spoken opinion leaders who comment on political minefields daily?

  1. Influence of followers: not only how many followers you have, but who, can determine whether your ideas – or gaffes – will reach a wide audience or not. In the case of Justine Sacco, with less than 200 followers, it was the retweet to a journalist – an influencer with a large and powerful network – that ignited the Twitter outrage.
  2. Content: What are you sharing, and can it easily be misinterpreted? Arguably this is difficult, as trolls and bullies are masters of deliberate misinterpretation. But a golden rule is to think before you speak, and consider it from an outsider’s perspective first.
  3. Context: With a small social circle, Justine Sacco felt she shared her joke with people that knew her, and that would understand her irony. But Twitter is a public network and the second the tweet was shared outside her sphere, people missed the context of her personality and previous tweets. While Facebook is a closed network, and in that sense safer, Twitter is the public sphere and what you share is open to everyone who might not agree, or does not want to agree with you.

This formula, combined with the speed, anonymity, permanence and massive dissemination of the internet is how your message can go viral, whether intended or not.

Managing reputational fear

This dynamic represents a catch 22 for companies using social media to engage with stakeholders and manage their reputation online. While CEOs and companies should be active online to build their reputation and relationship with stakeholders as well as empowering employees as brand ambassadors, this is also the point at which things can go wrong. That said, offline blunders can also easily be picked up by “shamers” online – there is no opting out.

The consequence of today’s shaming culture is that it sparks reputational fear, among everyone and particularly leaders. How can you make sure that this doesn’t happen to your CEO, one of your employees or even the official company profile? In a Deloitte report Exploring Strategic Risk (also discussed in this blog post), executives rated reputation as the highest impact risk area to their businesses. The same threat is recognised by the PR industry. In the World PR Report 2014 by the Holmes Report and the ICCO, digital communications was the practice area PR consultants globally expected the most growth to come from in the coming years, closely followed by corporate reputation.

Managing your reputation online is a daunting task, and as social media has delineated the separation between the personal and the professional, what employees say in their networks can impact the company’s reputation. While this creates a new dimension of vicarious liability, managing what your employees are up to on their personal accounts is neither possible nor desirable. Nonetheless, here are a few considerations about how to best prepare your team and your employees:

  1. Have a social media policy in place, as well as guidelines for employees engaging in social media
  2. Understand the dynamics, listen and engage: Social media is a great tool for monitoring public opinion and sentiment towards your company. By monitoring what is said about you online, you can in many instances discover and manage an issue before it evolves into a crisis.
  3. Build trust:  a strong reputation will always protect you in a crisis. By actively managing your reputation through proactive PR and sharing positive stories, as well as engaging with your audience, you will stand stronger in a negative situation.
  4. Be prepared: Have a plan for how your team will address and respond to issues to prevent a crisis, as well as a best practice for how to engage with hostile followers. Often honesty and timeliness will work in your favour.

So, will the sport of shaming people and companies come to an end any time soon, or must we constantly fear to be confronted with unintended blunders? My guess is that people eventually will grow more wary of what is often misinterpretations or overreactions. As social media becomes more mature, we will become more immune to what we regard as a scandal – and what we share with our network. Until then, with a strategic and attentive approach to social media engagement, there is no reason why companies cannot  win in terms of building an online reputation through connecting with key audiences than not.

What do you think?


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