Digital reputation management for businesses and C-suites: online opportunities and emerging threats

In today’s digital-first world, businesses and C-suites are increasingly using social media to raise their profiles, contribute to online conversation, and to market services. But alongside the countless opportunities it offers, social media also poses risks to privacy, reputation and security.

Tell us about what you do and your background?

Allan Dunlavy (AD): I’ve been at Schillings, protecting privacy, for nearly 15 years. I started out as a media litigator and I now help clients – including individuals who are high-profile, corporates, family offices and C-suite executives – solve knotty issues affecting their privacy, reputation and security.

With the growth of social media and the internet, threats to privacy have multiplied exponentially over recent years. The nature of this online world means that everyone is at risk – and we’re all dealing with the consequences of the loss of privacy that comes along with it.

At Schillings, we’ve been leading in the area of privacy for a long time – and it’s great to see that the value and importance of universal privacy is now being more widely recognised and appreciated. Ultimately, privacy is crucial to all of us to be able to live fulfilling and successful lives.

Rudi Moghaddam (RM): I’ve worked in the digital communications field for over five years now, in various capacities, from heading the private office of a CEO and Internet Minister, to running digital communications for a non-profit working to protect children from online harms. So I’ve seen this issue from a number of perspectives.

The psychological damage caused by the overnight digital destruction of a person’s reputation can be extreme, especially if the client has been the victim of fake news, a smear campaign or a serious privacy breach. Not only are the personal costs great but, in a business context, these digital challenges can impede C-suites’ ability to manage and protect their businesses, and therefore their employees, to the best of their ability. There is a professional chain of damage, especially in terms of the financial impact of reputational harm – the impact is very real, far-reaching and can easily stop businesses from reaching their full potential.

In our online world, how has the way in which businesses and C-suites engage with Big Tech and social media evolved?

AD: Over recent years, businesses and their leaders have embraced the data collected by Big Tech and social media companies, and are using this data in order to grow their businesses and access their customers and target markets. This has been the primary driver of revenue for Big Tech companies.

However, as the methods used for data collection and storage have become better understood and the wide-ranging invasion of privacy has been exposed, companies are becoming concerned about using this data for marketing purposes.

I doubt that companies want to identify potential customers and sell their product to them by using data that has been collected, stored and sorted by violating that customer’s privacy. And although they may not be the ones collecting the data, if companies are using it and paying for it – which sustains the entire data collection industry – there is likely to be backlash. As a result, we’re now seeing a increase in companies with user privacy as their USP.

But that’s not to say social media and Big Tech are not incredible tools: C-suite executives and companies are embracing social media to connect and build a direct and more engaging relationship with customers, allowing them to be more than just a faceless brand. Social media is additionally used as an avenue to receive feedback and complaints and address them: a well resolved complaint through social media can be a great tool for customer satisfaction and brand reputation.

RM: One of the demands of the evolution of social media is that consumers expect to have access to big-business decision makers, have their views heard and engage in an open dialogue with them. Following several major events of the past couple of decades – including the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements – consumers expect transparency and social advocacy, especially on the part of C-suites. So I think the biggest change we’ve seen is that an engagement with social media, however bold or subtle, is necessary on the part of businesses.

What risks do Big Tech and social media pose to businesses and C-suites?

AD: There are a number of issues which we’re seeing as increasingly problematic for clients. Fake adverts – where a company or executive is held out as supporting or being behind a product or service – are ramping up. In addition, social media use by staff with views that don’t align with the business can reflect on the business and have a big reputational impact on corporate image. Employees also often use social media to criticise or challenge their employers, again affecting reputation. Finally, we’re seeing C-suite executives and their families being exposed to hate and harassment, smear campaigns and fake news as a result of actions by their companies.

RM: One of the biggest risks companies face relates to third parties controlling or dominating the individual or brand’s online story. False endorsements, online abuse, smear campaigns, impersonation – these tactics are undertaken by malicious actors causing businesses and C-suites damage by overtaking their narratives. This is why there needs to be enough about a client online so that they are clear about who they are and what they stand for, giving them a platform to represent themselves when their narrative is challenged. That’s digital resilience.

Is the law keeping pace with the developments of social media?

AD: Unfortunately not. The laws currently being used to address issues on social media were created for newspapers, telephones or utilities – and are not appropriate or effective for dealing with issues arising out of the growth of Big Tech and social media. The Online Safety Bill, currently in draft form, is a great start to addressing this, and the most advanced proposed legislation we’ve seen on the issue. It works hard to balance the importance of free speech with tackling the enormous toxic issues online like abuse, harassment, and hate. However, although the Bill represents progress in this area – there are flaws in the Bill which need to be addressed.

Frances Haugen made it clear in her testimony that the toxic environment on social media is not an inevitable and unavoidable by-product of the positive use and availability of social media and the internet. Rather, it is encouraged and baked in by Big Tech and social media companies because this drives traffic and engagement and ultimately increases their revenue and profit. It is clear that these issues can be solved and the only real barrier is the profit of the Big Tech companies. They have demonstrated that they cannot and will not properly self-regulate and so they need to be regulated to protect society.

RM: In terms of C-suites and businesses, these international delays in regulatory legislation, such as in the case of the Online Safety Bill, make alternative methods of digital reputation protection even more salient. Since taking legal action against maligning online content and its creators can be a difficult journey, building a strong online presence about yourself and/or your business and optimising positive, controlled digital assets can allow you to reclaim the conversation alongside legal efforts.

How do you help businesses and C-suites protect themselves against the threats of social media while also taking advantage of the opportunities in the market?

AD: We help our clients create well-developed digital resilience strategies. These strategies will open up huge opportunities for business and their leadership, especially with regard to social media.

Social media offers the opportunity for businesses to directly access their customers and other stakeholders, share news and insights, resolve issues and complaints, get feedback and understand what customers want. It also creates credible and recognised channels. But things, often outside your control, can also go wrong – and this is when a resilient profile is really important.

Having a resilient profile means that if something happens in the world or goes wrong, then the company and its leaders are able to speak directly, and quickly, to the people that matter most to them – and can do so in a way that their customers are familiar with.

In addition, all companies should have a clear and well communicated corporate social media policy, accompanied by training, education and enforcement: this corporate strategy should be mutually reinforced by the way in which C-suites individually use social media.

RM: While legal strategies work to take down inaccurate content, we build a strong digital framework to prioritise owned and controlled content, and to give forthcoming positive PR content a strong platform from which to be promoted.

We always start with a 360 degree audit of a client’s online presence – if there is inaccurate, defamatory or negative content working against their goals, we build an optimised digital framework to showcase the real facts about who they are and what they do. We also monitor their name and brand on an ongoing basis to identify and pre-empt any issues before they become a full-blown crisis, which we work in tandem with Schillings to address.

Can you give an example of how you have helped businesses and senior individuals resolve issues involving social media or Big Tech?

AD: We are working right now with a very successful entrepreneur who has been the victim of two ‘pay-to defame’ blog sites, which we believe are being driven by a disgruntled ex-business partner. Because the client had never previously done any work on their online profile, these websites are ranking on page one of his results. We have had one set of blog entries removed using legal means and we are working on the other. But because they ranked so highly, they were quickly picked up by his bank, who he has been with for many years and now they are asking him to go through each allegation in painstaking detail to give his responses under the threat that they may close his accounts. In the meantime, it is taking them forever to process any of his transactions. So it’s really important to build out your digital portfolio to create resilience.

RM: In another case, we worked with a client who was a tech entrepreneur in the healthcare and telecommunications space. They connected with us after their name was included on a press list of ‘Worst CEOs’, the fall-out of which was a number of spin-off articles commenting on and amplifying the client’s inclusion on the list, which completely overtook their online narrative by taking over the majority of search result links on Google. To repair their digital reputation, and give it resilience for the future, our goal was to ensure the client’s first page of search results in Google consisted of fair content.

To do this, we started by identifying the specific industry directories, social media sites and other profiles that Google prioritises for people in the client’s industry and position. We leveraged this data to build optimised digital assets that would rank well in search results of the client and provide a fair counter-narrative. As a result, the negative articles that were ranking on Google’s page one of search results of the client’s name are no longer appearing, and the client can influence 90% of the search results on Google’s first page. I think this is a great example of how we prevent one negative and inaccurate press story from displacing the years of hard work and success it takes to create
a good reputation.