According to recent stats, more than four billion people now have access to the internet. That’s almost the entire population of the world during the mid-1970s, all able to connect with each other in one way or another through a screen. Back then, no one had even heard of an “online reputation”, let alone the need to manage one, and conveying a message to an audience en masse and connecting with the public only happened through a handful of channels.
Having an online presence is an essential part of a business’s operations and a key communication tool at present. It allows us to broadcast messages to a wide audience at any time of the day, connect with customers and stakeholders directly, no matter where they are in the world, and target specific pockets of communities and personas to influence their thinking. It’s definitely a minefield, and when it’s as easy as typing out a Tweet or a blog post and posting it at the click of a button for everyone to see instantly and comment on, it can be challenging to maintain a strong, consistent reputation. And there’s no doubt that organisations and individuals will come across hurdles from time to time when it comes to handling an online reputation.
Here are Firefly, we’ve been shaping reputations for more than 30 years. And in that time, we’ve sailed through the online communicative waves. From website copy, to social media strategies, to, more recently, virtual events. We know that mistakes can happen. Companies might overthink crisis strategies, by thinking that they can control every bit of what is said about them online and trying to only target a certain group of people. Here’s my take on the common myths about online reputations and how to get the best out of your online resources.
Remember that online reputation management is a long-term, usually positive campaign involving many different stakeholders and third parties. It might seem like you’re dealing with negativity a lot, particularly when it involves dealing with tricky customers via social media or negative press articles, but largely, online reputation campaigns are about finding ways to directly connect with your audience. “Reading the room” might be a bit more challenging because the room is a lot bigger online, of course, but that only makes it more interesting.
2. We only need to focus on what customers, prospects, and shareholders care about
They might be the people that bring in the sales, but third parties such as press, analysts, even your own staff and partners can make or break a reputation. And with a keyboard, mouse, and the internet at most people’s disposal, one Tweet from an employee or an online press article can be enough to cause a stir. Think about the recent BrewDog employee backlash scandal, for example. Ensure that you’re thinking about each and every stakeholder and anyone that might be associated with your company and ensure your tailoring online communications to all these different groups.
3. It can’t be measured
It’s not always easy to measure a reputation, but it’s always possible. Often, the easiest way is qualitative and quantitative surveys to the various groups that are important, but there are many other (often free, often easy) ways as well. For example, if you’re looking for your company’s reputation amongst staff, look on Glassdoor!
4. You can control everything
You can shape a reputation, but it sits inside people’s heads. At best, you can strongly influence it, but don’t always think you can control every single thing that is said about you on the internet, because, largely, you won’t be able to. Be strategic with how you play out your online communications. Are your spokespeople regularly interacting on LinkedIn? What are your employees saying on social media and how can you encourage them to speak positively about the company?
5. Everything requires a fast reaction
Finally, if you do have a reputational crisis, respect the fine balance between responding quickly enough and acting hastily. Consider, be quick, but don’t always go with your gut.
There was a quote from Matt Damon earlier this month in GQ where he expressed his feeling on the return to Hollywood: “It has just been a lot, like from zero to hundred again. I was excited to kind of reengage with the world, but I forgot how fast it moves.”
It’s the same story across every industry; and comms certainly had a hectic summer.
This September, The London Underground saw the busiest Monday back since the start of the pandemic, as the rush hour roars back. Bars, restaurants, and cafes have bustled to life with eager customers; the wait for a table at your favourite spot is back. A frenzied summer of global dealmaking and transactions has set records, with almost $4 trillion of deals already signed on the dotted line. The job market is busy, with the second highest monthly increase in new employment coupled with a booming number of vacancies.
Headlines are dominated now by funding news, companies committed to growing their workforce and launches of new innovations. It’s exciting, it’s hectic, but it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what we’ve just been through.
When the pandemic blended our professional and personal lives, we learned valuable lessons in authenticity and vulnerability as the world changed around us. Whilst we ride the wave of economic prosperity and reopening, these resilient characteristics will be vastly beneficial.
Zooming out to see the bigger picture
As the crisis of the pandemic hit, conversations became more meaningful as we all stood on common ground. It facilitated more open and authentic discussion as we chatted home lives, mental health, and everything in between. Not only did we see inside people’s homes, including their bookshelves, but opportunities for more introspection and empathy across every industry were revealed.
Some changes were hugely impactful on our daily lives and some more subtle, but we developed a wider and more thoughtful perspective, reframing what we see in the ‘picture frame of life’. A crisis often helps us develop a wider point of view as we question the way we live and what is important to us. However, for many people, it was a challenge as industries ground to a halt or plans were cancelled completely. For those lucky enough to have job security and the freedom and space to dream big, zooming out to see the bigger picture can present brilliant opportunities for improving growth and communications within your organisation.
By breaking free of the prior rigidity of routine, we found ourselves to be more vulnerable. Everyone has experienced the past 18 months vastly similarly and vastly differently; we can resonate and sympathise with our neighbours and colleagues. Beyond seeing the glass as half full, we see new imagined and realistic ideals: moving to a new city, a new career change or a new passion.
The power of authentic and human communication
Whilst it may be tempting for businesses to focus on comms demonstrating growth, success, and innovation, it must be balanced with authentic stories highlighting the impact and human side to your brand. The power to bounce back is more paramount than ever, especially how we set forth with this ability. This can be showcased with reputational assets- thought leaders, delighted clients, resilient workforces- the important part is to continue to build purpose-led authentic communications. Be wary of following what the rest of the crowd is doing though, and make sure to march to the beat of your own drum. Audiences are sharp and they know when they are being duped with a manufactured story or a cliched idiom. To avoid these blunders, provide your audience with relatable, passion and enthusiastic messaging without overthinking.
Being vulnerable to stand out in the crowd
In a vast sea of communications, stick out withpersonable and honest stories. For example, the file sharing service WeTransfer had a viral, offbeat campaign entitled ‘Please Leave’, narrated by poet Roxane Gay, reminding audiences of their values of putting people first, and the importance of creativity.
You may feel like Matt Damon and have forgotten how fast pre-pandemic life zooms by, but don’t forget pandemic life either. We learnt a lot, and as hard as it was, in many ways it made us better and more human.
It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on at the moment and it may be hard to keep up with the news – especially if you’re also trying to scour online for last-minute Christmas presents. So, in case you’re busy concentrating on getting that perfect gift or what size turkey you’ll need for your Christmas bubble, we’ve rounded up the biggest news in tech to be keeping an eye on.
With Covid vaccinations now underway, there could be some more good news on the horizon for the UK tech scene. British mobile networks are hoping to take up a leading role in emerging radio technology, OpenRan, which could be worth up to $21bn. The Daily Telegraph has the full story.
The end of the year is also set to mark a bumper month for tech IPOs. As a household name now, everyone has been watching Airbnb closely as it continued to raise the price of its shares ahead of its IPO on 10th December, making it one of the largest US IPOs of the year. Head to the Guardian to read more. The Guardian also covered food delivery company DoorDash’s huge IPO.
We’re also one step closer to landing on Mars, with SpaceX undertaking its first suborbital flight test, continuing plans to take that giant leap onto Mars in four years. Want to find out more and where to watch the live stream? Head to the Independent.
However, it’s not all good news for everyone. The future may not be looking so rosy for the big players of Silicon Valley, as the UK Competition and Markets Authority is asking for more powers to crack down on tech giants. You can find out more about what the CMA is proposing and what new regulations could look like on the Daily Telegraph.
Tech giants are also facing additional challenges. Google is currently coming under fire and receiving employee backlash after sacking leading AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru. To read the whole story of what happened and the response from other Google employees, head to BBC News. Uber has also announced that it’s putting the brakes on plans to create its own self-driving car, putting a stop to the ambitious initiative by transferring its autonomous vehicle tech to rival Aurora, according to the Financial Times.
UK fintech and challenger banks, such as Monzo and Revolut, may also be in for a rough ride in 2021, as a new Accenture report has found that UK consumers are uncertain about their ability to survive long-term. CityAM covers the full report and analysis.
Following huge disparity revealed across different parts of the UK, leading industry body, TechUK, is also calling for the UK government to address the “Local Digital Capital gap” in the coming year. CityAM has more on this and the call to digitally level up.
Hopefully you’re a little more clued up now on what to watch out for in the world of tech as we move into a new year. But if you’re still struggling to find that perfect gift – or aren’t sure what to gift yourself from Santa – as a little Christmas gift from us, here are some of the best tech gifts and gadget round ups from GQ, Metro, The Sun, Glamour and the Guardian. Some of these are certainly on our Christmas wish lists.
Here’s a test for you. Open Instagram and go through the first 10 posts. How many of them are people you know and how many are brands, influencers, ads or celebrities? I just tried this and to no surprise, only one post out of the 10 was from someone I know. Among the other content, I had two paid ads, one celebrity, five influencers, and one brand.
For some this realisation is old news, but recently I’ve become increasingly aware of just how much social media content I consume isn’t actually from my friends and family. While not all celebrity, influencer, or brand content is ad related, I think (as a PR person particularly) it’s easy to get hyperaware and hypercritical of these often perfectly curated posts. I tend to find myself keeping an eagle-eye out for sneaky product placement in influencers’ and celebrities’ posts or trying to guess what they’re promoting before reading the caption (which as many of you know, is often totally unrelated to the picture’s content). Like many others, I’m also guilty of occasionally comparing myself or my life to those I see on social media. Most of the time I can roll my eyes and scroll past another run-of-the-mill ‘attractive woman holding product she probably doesn’t use’ picture, but of course from time-to-time I’m jealous of someone travelling to an amazing country, who looks fantastic, or appears to be super successful.
I’m not alone in this. In fact, research published by Mary Sherlock and Danielle Wagstaff in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture recently showed that for women there’s a correlation between the frequency of Instagram use and depressive symptoms, self-esteem, general and physical appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction. But of course, social media often presents things that aren’t really as they are in reality – it’s a highlight reel, stylised with the perfect filter to show off people ‘living their best life’. But what toll does this have on influencers?
Social media influencers are in a true popularity contest, played out in front of thousands of followers. They need to have the most appealing content for their medium, post constantly, and essentially open the door to their whole lives (and in turn people’s comments on their lives – positive and negative) in order to build their following and maintain their place. It can be a pretty vicious cycle, especially since a social media hiatus will be negatively punished by social media algorithms – something that was the case for young YouTuber Soy Jessi who took a break from YouTube when her mum passed away.
The pressure to push out so much content and present a perfect life can take a serious toll on influencers’ mental health. YouTuber Bobby Burns describes himself as the ‘poster child for internet burnout’. He says influencers know the lifestyle is bad for them, saying they create a fake personality that faces constant public judgement – but yet they keep going because it’s addictive. Another Instagram influencer, Ruby Matthews, recently spoke out about using cocaine, coffee and cigarettes to maintain her figure and said this is common practice in the influencer space, while the infamous Zoella has also admitted to feeling ‘suffocated’ and ‘disconnected’ from too much social media use.
This presents an ethical dilemma for PR people. Influencer PR is, of course, very common and effective these days across various platforms, despite speculation rising on whether the influencer bubble is bursting. The way in which we use it is changing to increasingly prioritise ‘microinfluencers’, but this change is mainly about getting the best return on investment from the influencer you choose to work with.
When searching for an influencer, there’s generally a sweet spot on who you’re trying to find: it’s someone who has a following that is largely made up of people you want to know about the brand you’re representing, who comes at a fair price point, has other content relevant to the brand on their channel, and can speak to about the brand in an authentic and trustworthy way. It can be difficult to hit this sweet spot with all four of those, but it’s interesting that there’s little consideration for who the person really is behind it all. That aspect does come into the ‘authentic voice’ and ‘relevant content’ pieces, but that’s more about how they present themselves – not who they are in reality.
Think about how many generic Instagram pictures you’ve seen of an influencer doing something hyper-stylised with a caption like “How cute is my new floor mat? Love having this under my feet every day, and it’s now 25% off | AD” (Okay, but I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure you get my point).
So how can PR people better support influencers’ well-being? While it’s not our responsibility (or qualification) to manage their mental health, there’s ethical considerations we can keep in mind before working with an influencer that will help protect them accordingly.
The PRCA Code of Conduct and CIPR Code of Conduct both give great guidelines that can be applied to influencer work. Here’s some steps with these codes in mind:
With all this in mind, take another look at those top 10 posts that come up in your Instagram home feed and get analytical. Do they actually feel authentic? Do they really seem like they use that brand? Are they a trustworthy source on this product or service? This isn’t to make you think badly of the influencer – it’s to help you remember there’s a person behind it and to help you better target your next campaign.
Until mid-September 2017, Facebook allowed ad buyers to target users who were interested in, or who had interacted with anti-Semitic content. The categories were created by a self-selecting algorithm, which aggregated data based on user activity on pages and feeds, rather than individuals’ profiles, from each of its two billion active monthly users.
In March 2016, Microsoft launched an experimental Twitter chatbot to learn from other users, get smarter and eventually have conversations. Just a few hours later, @TayandYou was spouting white supremacist, pro-genocidal content and was taken down in short order.
This raises two questions in my mind. Firstly, can machines be accountable for their actions? And second, what should you do as a communications professional if they do misbehave?
Why should we hold machines accountable?
Neural network-style systems are programmed and trained to reach outcomes, within certain parameters, such as not letting high-risk people buy insurance or creating a category for advertisers to target once a topic reaches a certain threshold of interest amongst users. These algorithms are usually very complex, as they have to process a significant amount of information about specific users, users as groups, external conditions and do a lot of calculations as a result. But once they’re trained within a reasonable degree of success, many organisations simply let them run.
The problem, as academics and journalists tell us, is that this learning can sometimes be a ‘black box’ that you can’t see inside.
It’s cheap labour; all you have to pay is the operating bill for the server.
Of course, not all algorithms are commercial – one of our clients, SafeToNet, is in the middle of creating algorithms that can detect harmful content online and take appropriate action to prevent children seeing it. The algorithms can also learn ‘backwards’ – for example, once it sees that an exchange between two young adults ends in one sending the other a sexually explicit message, it looks back at the cadence of communication to learn the pattern that lead to the explicit content and help prevent this in future, removing the harm before it occurs.
The problem is the lack of transparency – according to the Huffington Post and Oxford University, putting this in place can often make a system less efficient, because it has to be slowed down enough to be overseen. But I’m in complete agreement with Wired Magazine when it said, ‘it would be irresponsible not to try to understand it’ – after all, some of these systems are hugely powerful, have no moral compass and reflect the best and worst parts of the human condition without any concept of which is which.
My opinion is really very simple: no machine, no application, no algorithm should go untested or unsupervised, particularly in the period immediately after release or upgrade. You wouldn’t give a few days training to a junior member of staff and expect them to perform well without a manager, and algorithms don’t have the common sense or moral compass that new employees have.
Handling a crisis in AI
But if things do go wrong, how do you handle an AI crisis? Well, in many ways it’s no different to handling other crisis situations – just don’t be afraid of the complexities of AI. The first stage of any crisis, robot-fuelled or not, is understanding the situation clearly. Talk to the experts in the company where problems originated and don’t take no for an answer. After that, we’d recommend traditional crisis communications steps, including:
After the initial surge of adrenalin fades, it’s vital to keep monitoring the situation, assessing the impact, taking action and keeping an eye on the response across stakeholder groups, and across traditional and social media channels.
Above all, when you’re dealing with a machine crisis, the most important thing is to think like a human.
Are you yawning yet? I hope not. PR ethics is a serious subject – and as soon as the subject becomes personal, the interest levels rise. The recent Bell Pottinger case has put bad ethical judgement in the spotlight and there’s no question that inciting racial hatred is an indefensible and unethical one.
On a less sensational scale, how often might these ethical PR problems come up and test your own judgement? You may well be surprised. How about confidentiality dilemmas with recording complex conversations, leveraging one client to benefit another, exaggerating facts, blowing a non-disclosure agreement, understanding where loyalties lie, concerns for public safety or offering career favours? There might also be integrity challenges like how accurate is accurate, dealing with implied bribery, handling deception, bundle discounting, knowing when you can invest, sharing of evidence or handling conflicts of interest.
Aha, perhaps this has now got a bit more interesting – and dare I say, relevant? It’s the classic ‘for example’ rule we use in media training. As soon as you say those two magic words ‘for example’ people actually get what you’re talking about. So, using ‘for example,’ the PRCA code of ethics can relate back to what might be going on in a PR agency or an in-house department most months, weeks or days.
I chair the PRCA professional practices committee (which is the committee that deals with complaints) and I am the PRCA’s trainer on ethics. Over many years I’ve tried to help PR professionals (from students to MDs) appreciate why having strong ethical judgement is so important and how your ethical awareness can be tested.
Most PRs (recent events aside) don’t set out to deliberately misinform or deceive but, as the PRCA code outlines, PRs also need ‘to avoid doing so inadvertently’. You may be in breach of the rules without realising and, sorry, no, ignorance is not a sufficient excuse. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘ethical’ practice only relates to the public and the media, the same rules apply to other PR professionals and your colleagues. We all know the phrase ‘give credit where credit is due’ and in PR this is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, so make sure you recognise who did come up with that great idea.
So then, just how sound is your judgement? To have a good ethical backbone for your personal approach to PR, or how you run your PR team, you need to trust your instincts, know your PR code of ethics and use your common sense. There are some good top tips here from a previous blog piece I wrote, or why not consider these questions and statements below?
I hope this quiz was easy for you, (correct answers below – did you get them all right?) but these are just four examples of the 40 dilemmas I use to test people’s judgement, their awareness of the Code and their common sense in applying it to their everyday PR challenges.
If you’d like to hear more, you can give this recent csuite podcast a listen or why not come on my course, and challenge yourself with the other 36 dilemmas.
Answers: Both no, both false
Are you proud of the industry you’re in? I really hope so. Life is too short not to be. We all have a crazed moment of hating and sounding off about certain professions, and generalising a group of professionals or workers as @%?£!’s as (add your preferred assortment of expletives, all insulting).
Last Saturday at 10.42 precisely, I hated parking wardens, when given a parking ticket as we loaded my car with old IT equipment ready to be carted off to our local recycling centre – I was trying to be a good citizen. What I said about parking wardens in my following 20+ rants is definitely not repeatable on the internet. And similar rants are given about estate agents, tax inspectors, call centre operators, bailiffs and the list goes on. I suspect we all find our ‘Victor Meldrew’ side from time to time.
And of course, people love to hate PR professionals because they think we lie and don’t speak openly and truthfully. We are lumped together as ‘Spin Doctors’ and probably given a few other unpleasant names as well. The disgust and distaste is one of mistrust, as “spin” often implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.
The good news is that PR people have fallen down the list of most hated professions but there is still plenty of work to do, continuously.
It’s personal. It is down to everyone working in the PR industry to understand that your reputation and the responsibility you carry is built on a strong ethical foundation. When was the last time you read the PRCA or the CIPR code of conduct? How ethical are you?
Do you confuse ethics with morals? Both relate to right and wrong. But morals are your own principles as to what is right or wrong, whereas ethics is adhereing to your professional code of conduct.
Why does our industry have a code of conduct? It’s because…
There are some perceived grey areas, such as transparency. When is it imperative to say all of the truth, some of the truth or none of the truth? When is it imperative to maintain confidentiality?
The PRCA Code says “A member firm has a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations. Furthermore, a member has the responsibility at all times to deal fairly and honestly with clients, past and present, fellow members and professionals, suppliers, intermediaries, the media of communication, employees and above all else, the public.”
I’ve highlighted the keywords to remember. Any PR professional must be mindful of giving the right advice to any client and not falling into the spin trap of deception and manipulation.
I’ve given lectures on Ethics for the CIPR, I’ve debated at the House of Commons on the subject of Ethics on behalf of the CIPR and I regularly run an Ethics webinar for the PRCA.
My tops tips for being an ethical PR professional are as follows:
For more information about my PRCA course please read http://news.prca.org.uk/prca-training-launches-new-ethics-in-pr-course/
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