Reputation resilience in a digital world

In today’s digital-first world, how you manage your online asset portfolio is critical to protecting the reputation, privacy and security of your family, company and senior executives. Allan Dunlavy, partner at Schillings, explains how.

Allan, what is our digital asset portfolio and why is it important in today’s world?
Twenty-five years ago, before the advent of the internet and social media, it was much easier for companies to ensure that they were part of the public conversation about their company, people and brand. Broadly this was driven by journalists and newspaper or magazine publications. Today, the picture has changed completely. Due to the nature of the internet, people can say whatever they want, whether they are knowledgeable about the subject or not and whether or not they have any experience in fact checking and sourcing information that is published. This means that inaccurate, misleading and unfair content is regularly posted, whether on social media, blogs or websites, and can significantly damage the reputation of individuals and businesses.

Your digital portfolio is made up of exactly these types of publications; numerous digital properties such as Wikipedia pages, websites, social media profiles, online news articles, online biographies, compliance profiles and review websites.

A photograph of Allan Dunlavy of Schillings
“Many people only focus on Google search results but there is much more to your digital portfolio than Google. The first two pages of Google are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Allan Dunlavy, Schillings

And your digital portfolio – exactly like your financial portfolio – is not an island. An entrepreneur, an organisation, it’s brand and its employees, especially the CEO and senior leadership, are all linked to one another and connected to what is happening in the wider world.

Every portfolio will have actual and potential liabilities. Many of the digital assets in your portfolio can be directly managed by you, but there are some things which are out of your direct control – such as a media article – and these also need to be reviewed, understood and engaged with where possible.

It is vital that every business, executive and individual actively takes control of its digital portfolio and spends time to identify, grow and invest in the assets within it.

What is in a digital portfolio?
Many people only focus on Google search results but there is much more to your digital portfolio than Google. You can think of it like an iceberg. The first two pages of Google are just the tip of the iceberg. Google and other search engines only account for around 5% of the data that is available via the internet. The deep web on the other hand contains information about individuals and companies that isn’t indexed by search engines. When an interested party – a bank, potential investor, or competitor start digging, say in the context of conducting ‘due diligence’ they are going to find a whole lot of other information. These people will have the time and resources to search the deep web.

Knowing exactly what is in your digital portfolio is important. Currently there is huge growth in the industries of data aggregation and data broking, and this has resulted in your data being dispersed very widely. These are multibillion-dollar industries, led by companies that most of us have never heard of, but they buy up data – your data – and sell it to marketing organisations and companies that make decisions about us based on this data. Most businesses may not realise that their marketing team are buying this type of data to target clients.

What should we take into consideration when managing our digital portfolios?
At Schillings, we believe that your reputation, privacy and security are your biggest assets (whether you are an individual or business). Building digital resilience and managing your digital portfolio is key to protecting these assets.

An effective programme can be broken down into four components:

  1. You first need to conduct an investigation to identify what’s in your portfolio. A full audit will identify what assets exist on Google and also what is available on the deep web and in compliance databases. It will also flag any data that has been compromised and is available on the dark web.
  2. You then need to talk to your advisers about what you want to achieve eg for your business, investments, philanthropy and other interests.
  3. Your legal and technical team will then develop and implement a strategy with these objectives in mind and use the right tools to build digital resilience and manage your portfolio.
  4. You need to be able to produce high quality content by working with your communications team.

When done well, this type of strategic digital portfolio management creates significant opportunities and can play a key role in helping you achieve your business objectives – whether those are financial targets, increased share price and capital value growth, goals around audience and reach, social mission goals, recruitment and retention or ESG.

Why is it important to ensure your digital profile is resilient?
We’ve seen many cases where a lack of resilience has resulted in negative consequences. If you have a resilient portfolio then the false and damaging information that we frequently see published online will not have the same impact on your portfolio. They will not rank as high or for as long.

For example, now we’re working with a 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 their results. We have had one set of blog entries removed using legal means and we are working on the other. But because the blogs ranked so highly, they were quickly picked up by his bank, who the client has been with for many years. The bank are now asking the client to go through each allegation in painstaking detail to give responses under the threat that they may close the accounts. In the meantime, it is taking them forever to process any transactions. It’s really important to build out your digital portfolio to create resilience to protect against these types of issues.

How do Schillings help clients build digital resilience?
Working alongside our client’s communications advisers, our digital resilience, intelligence and legal teams work together to develop and implement a programme to identify what is in the portfolio, analyse any liabilities and ensure that the assets in your portfolio are fair, accurate and up to date. Search engine algorithms are structured to reward and rank negative and controversial content more highly – even when it is not true – and so it is important to be able to balance this. The goal is to ensure that your portfolio is accurate, resilient and dovetails with your wider objectives.

There is no panacea or magic for ‘cleaning up the internet’ and a multi-pronged strategy is required. This will deliver results provided it is integrated, co-ordinated and persistent.

Based in New York, Schillings Partner Allan Dunlavy has a wealth of experience in managing and responding to a broad range of high-profile and complex crisis situations. With a background in commercial, media, privacy and intellectual property litigation, Allan is an experienced problem solver who specialises in online privacy, reputation and digital resilience. His expertise has led him, over recent years, to become involved with Big Tech, both in terms of policy and litigation. He is a frequent commentator on issues such as Big Tech regulation, the Online Safety Bill, online anonymity and social media privacy, with his opinions featured in publications such as The Times, The Independent, CityAM and technology publications.