The power of one: Internet outages and reputational risks

The power of one: Internet outages and reputational risks

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

Back in the early 90s, I watched a film called The Power of One with Morgan Freeman and a very young Daniel Craig playing the villain. It was essentially the story of a young boy becoming the symbol of change and hope – as far as I recall, it was a good watch but the title stayed with me.

I was reminded of the power of one recently as we watched the Fastly crisis unfold. Dozens of websites were down including Amazon, The Guardian, Reddit and even the UK government website. What was even more shocking was when it was reported that this outage was caused by one single Fastly customer. At first, I thought it was bizarre for such a big issue to be caused by one person, but actually it’s not. Single people impact and change the world every day, whether they know it or not. And actually, it’s the power of the individual that can make or break companies, especially when it comes to reputation.

One person, one move, one potential crisis

I was told a great anecdote recently about frozen chickens when discussing reputation with reputation lawyer Magnus Boyd for our new book, Reputation in the Round (coming soon - keep an eye out!). Magnus said: “Imagine that you have a young member of staff in a supermarket who decides to have a bit of a laugh. This person kicks a frozen chicken around like a football and someone records it, putting it on social media. We’d all expect a bit of a crisis from this, and perhaps the stock price of the supermarket will take a hit as people see the video. What people don’t think about is that pensions are investing in companies like this, and suddenly your retirement plans are in the hands of an 18 year-old playing around with a frozen chicken. That power has only really come about in the last decade but drives home the importance of involving everyone in discussions about company reputation, and making sure that they permeate through the entire organisation and everyone is aware.” 

This really shines a light on the potential of the individual and highlights just how important it is to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to your reputation plans. The recent open letter to BrewDog from ex-staff complaining of a culture of fear demonstrates this clearly - the people at the top are really clear on the bold and punchy characters they wanted to be, but many in its workforce felt differently. It was the choice of more than 100 ex-employees to publish the open letter, while it was the choice of the CEO to publicly respond. Was this enough to override any reputational ramifications? It’s possibly too early to tell. But what we do know is that organisations must always think about their most valuable asset - their people. 

Fast growth needn’t make your people furious

Technology companies are particularly infamous for fast growth - the pace of innovation is getting faster and faster by the day. Things change constantly, opportunities blossom and more often than not, it all seems to happen at once. The trick is to try and keep up with the tides, not swim against them.  

In times like this, it may feel that the best thing to do is shout about success but it’s a perfect time to start listening more. Think back to the recent issues with Goldman Sachs - junior staff complaining of working 100 hour weeks and feeling as though they were victims of workplace abuse. We’re all guilty of working a bit too much from time to time, but when it’s this many extra hours there is clearly more growth than the people can keep up with and most likely unrealistic targets set for them too. When you grow, people have so much more on their plates and these plates don’t get bigger. Sometimes you just need more plates, otherwise there is a risk of people being overworked, underappreciated, and issues such as burnout become more likely.

Top tips for managing fast growth to prevent reputational risks

Reputation is fragile, like a spider web. It takes a lot of time to build but can be broken down quickly. Here are some of the ways that technology companies can pause and make sure that the fast growth ahead is manageable:

  • Listen: One of the biggest risks that fast growth companies need to consider is the impact growth will have on its people. Have changes been communicated well? Are staff on the same page as the leadership teams? If you’re unsure, ask! 
  • Prepare: If you’re able to see the tide before it hits, you must ensure you are aptly prepared. This could be anything from having the right access to skills, having enough people to cover the influx of work, or simply allocating enough time for people to feel prepared. 
  • Be aware: If you don’t have the time to prepare, you can be aware. Try to understand how much everyone has on, who can take on more, who can’t, and check in with your people. Burnout and mental health crises are a big risk during times of high stress and if staff numbers are already low, ensuring everyone is at the top of their game is key. 

Much like the protagonist in The Power of One, one single person can have a huge impact – be that a young man standing as a symbol of hope to strive for a better future or a single Fastly customer causing a mass internet outage. Reputation is not only in the hands of the people at the top, it’s also the responsibility of the everyday employee – their time and effort need to be not only valued but celebrated. Each person holds an important power, it must be nurtured and cared for, especially during the stressful times of fast growth.

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