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Social media can be the enemy within for your reputation management

Your brand is porous, so any time you try to tell the world what to think of you, you'll fail. We look at how to harness social media to manage your brand and reputation online.

In times past, whoever is responsible for the corporate communications in your organisation could expect a relatively leisurely life - issuing the odd press statement, emailing out the pdfs of the quarterly and annual reports and keeping a lid on anything more explosive through maintaining close ties with whichever journalist covered their patch. They lived a largely untroubled life. Anything to do with actual service or consumer relations could be farmed out to agencies. Job done. Reputation management was, largely, a rather sedate affair.

Now it’s very different. The digital age has, of course, changed everything as multi-way conversations have become the norm on a variety of platforms. Companies can no longer communicate with their stakeholders via static media and carefully worded statements. Consumers, influencers, shareholders and suppliers all expect direct access, instant response, and transparency - and all delivered with a human face. This job has got so much harder as social media becomes the battleground for your corporate reputation.

The common response to that challenge has, too often, been to replace a stilted pdf-led approach with a stilted Twitter-led approach. A single Twitter handle, every utterance carefully crafted (rarely re-tweeted) and engagement to be avoided at all costs; backed with a Facebook crammed with links to corporate web pages, which go resolutely ‘unliked’ or Instagram pages with pictures of happy co-workers and customers which go similarly unliked. It’s an attempt to transplant the authoritative corporate voice from the world of the email attachment to the world of social media - and it doesn’t work.

The reputational challenge for corporate communications professionals is how to deal with a social, diffuse world, with many voices and just as many opinions, with no hint of deference or hierarchy and no single figure of authority. The issue for those at the top in corporate comms is that where once they would be able to to put a dam across a stream of information, now they have to deal with the currents and eddies of a fast-flowing river of the stuff.

And that’s outside your organisation. It doesn’t get much easier inside, but that’s where the work starts.

The chances are everyone in your organisation will have a social media presence. From the CEO trying to sound normal on Twitter to the guy running the coffee bar Instagramming all the flat whites, they’ll all have an outlet, and they’ll have different levels of knowledge and expertise while their jobs will have different levels of public visibility. You can’t control every utterance from all those inside your organisation, but you can offer guidance, give them content to share and tell them what is, and isn’t, appropriate. These are your first wave of advocates, the footsoldiers to a coherent digital reputation strategy which takes into account the voice and authority of senior figures, the power of the brand, the expertise of key figures and the reach of social behemoths.

It’s not easy - maintaining any form of editorial control over such a diffuse array of participants is tricky. Systems of governance and even monitoring will be needed, strategy will have to be shared, a common purpose established. You’ll need a strategic overview that shares the bigger picture and makes sure all the participants are facing the same direction.

Having common sense rules of behaviour online can help, but such rules are best delivered with a benign hand. People will make mistakes but, so long as they learn, that can be tolerated. Few will openly criticise their own organisation, but you’ll need to know how to react if they do. Without some form of retribution, no matter how mild, there’s little point in setting the rules in the first place.

The prize can be worthwhile. Your corporate reputation can benefit significantly from a distinctive, collective voice in your market. It can give you brand profile, industry leadership, and help you be the big voice at the top table. Reputations can be built, bit by bit, on the back of many voices.

And you have to drive it - let your people know the expectations and the responsibilities. There are processes we can help with, such as social media codes of conduct, content flows, digital assets and editorial processes (get in touch) and there’s the things you can do - create a collective culture that your team buy into and give them a sense of the brand purpose you are creating. Get all that right and you have powerful voices on platforms - and a much easier life for your corporate comms team.