Reputations live and die online

Reputation has been a hot topic in the world of Canadian journalism lately.

First, radio talk-show host Jian Ghomeshi is let go from the CBC. Then Leslie Roberts resigns as news anchor from Global as a result of an investigation into conflict of interest. And most recently, business editor Amanda Lang has come under scrutiny for conflict of interest, leading our national public network to change its policy on paid appearances by on-air journalists.

The knives are definitely out.

But although they’re handy — and highly visible — targets, it’s not just journalists whose reputations are being flogged in the court of public opinion. It’s all of us. Like it or not, we’re all visible and we’re all targets for scandal.

It’s the world we live in. Sadly, social media has become an ideal platform for finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and reputation-bashing.

According to Tony Wilson, a lawyer and SFU professor specializing in social media and reputation, it’s more important than ever to think long and hard about one’s reputation, and the risks to that reputation, before hitting the ‘send’ button. Here’s the link to a recent article on the subject.

Consider this: According to Business Insider, there were an estimated 4+ billion mobile phone users in 2012 globally, and the number is expected to increase to over 5 billion by 2017. That’s a lot of photos, a lot of videos, a lot of texts, a lot of opinions and a lot of potential for missteps.

Intimidating as it is, that’s not really the point. The point is that here we have a technology platform that increasingly is being used to ‘out’ people. We’re imperfect beings, and in some weird way, technology is conspiring against us to show us just how broken some of us are.

As a PR person, I’ve seen how personal and corporate reputations can be ruined on social media. I saw it before the advent of social media, at company get-togethers, corporate retreats, and off-site meetings. But with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, the risks have become magnified a thousand-fold.

On the positive side, I’ve also seen how reputations can be enhanced. And that’s really the point I want to emphasize, not the sleazy underside of human behaviour. Instead of tattle-telling on each other, it’s time to grow up and get the most out social. Leverage it for all it’s worth — to build community, improve customer experience, engage employees and strengthen relationships.

So make this the year we all get smarter, lead with our heads, and take the high road.



Apologize and build trust

One of the first rules in crisis communications is to know when and how to apologize, assuming, of course, that you’re in the wrong.

The sooner the apology is offered, the better it is for your reputation — to say nothing of the reputation that you and your organization have worked hard to build. It’s also best to offer the apology quickly, rather than waiting to be bullied into action on social media or as a result of consumer backlash.

Which leads me to ask why, for instance, have the dentistry students at Dalhousie University not come forward yet to apologize for the unacceptable comments made about their female classmates on Facebook? It seems to me their silence is having a negative impact not only on their reputations as professionals going forward, but also in the moment, on Dalhousie’s.

Whether out of fear of reprisal, fear of litigation, or simply shame, apologizing when you’re wrong should be part of what executives are taught at business school, if not later in their careers, by their executive coaches, their media consultants, their mentors and colleagues.

Some things are just plain wrong and require an apology. Imagine how differently we might feel as consumers, if someone way back in 2007 had spoken out about sub-prime mortgage lending and blew the whistle. An apology from financial regulators, or from a central bank somewhere, would have been nice. It may not have stopped the global recession we’ve lived with for the past 8 years, but it would have built more trust in the system (and that’s really the bottom-line) had there been more accountability and more mea culpas.

On the subject of natural capital, an interesting article appeared this week in Corporate Knights on global deforestation, including an analysis of why it’s happening, countries most at risk and the overall economic impacts. Here’s the link.

Ever the optimist, the article made me wonder, what a different world it would be if apologies were expected not only for bad personal or corporate behaviour, but also from whole industries or individual governments. In the case of deforestation, how amazing would it be to hear an apology?

Apologizing simply because it’s the right thing to do, especially in this litigious world, takes guts.That’s what I like about the way the CEO of AirAsia is handling communications in the aftermath of Flight 8501′s crash into the Java Sea.I find Tony Fernandez’s approach incredibly refreshing.

It leaves me hopeful that even in the face of incredible human tragedy, a new type of leadership might be emerging.