Reputation Management in the Digital Age: The New Realities

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part SoundInsights installment examining the new realities of the digital age—universal truths that stewards of corporate and non-profit brands should weigh when developing their integrated communications strategies. The second part will examine the best practices for capitalizing on the transformed communications landscape. 

The decline of traditional communications channels, coupled with the rise of social media, have upended many of the longstanding tenets of reputation management. A company could once address issues affecting its reputation through one-way communications, often narrowcasting messaging to reflect the particular interests of individual stakeholder groups. Today, it can engage in two-way communications in a surround sound ecosystem in which various stakeholder groups hear largely the same thing.

The command and control playbook for reputation management is gone—and it’s never coming back.

For companies and non-profit organizations proactively attentive to enhancing and protecting their reputations, the digital age represents a potent opportunity. After all, never have they had a greater diversity of tools—many of them far more cost-effective than advertising—not simply to communicate to stakeholders groups, but to engage with them. Conversely, for those content with simply maintaining their reputations, the transformed communications landscape is not without its threats.

Of the realities to emerge in recent years, the following have the greatest potential influence on the relative strength or weakness of corporate and non-profit brands:

Most Americans see the world through the lens of social media.

Whereas both digital and print circulations of U.S. newspapers have declined for 28 consecutive years, social media is now a primary source of news for two-thirds of Americans. According to Pew Research Center (PRC), 68 percent of U.S. adults are on Facebook—roughly three-quarters of which visit the platform at least once a day. Moreover, the greatest users of the platform include milllennials, college graduates and those occupying the highest income bracket ($75,000+) tracked by PRC.

But that lens often provides a binary view of the world.

While many had initially hoped that social media would enable the democratic exchange of differing opinions, it more frequently resembles a standoff of opposing views. This is the result of several variables, not least the algorithms employed by Facebook to shepherd users towards content reflecting their ideological preferences.

In a recent big think article explaining how social media creates echo chambers, Orion Jones observed:
“…sociologists have concluded that social media often entrench people’s ideological positions and even make those positions more extreme. Witness the age of a bitterly divided America.”

People look to people who look like them.

From LinkedIn to Instagram, social media’s essential appeal is, well, that it is social. Whether they are sharing a Harvard Business Review case study or a restaurant recommendation, people do so with the expectation of reciprocity and validation from the members of their professional network or community of followers. The exchange is transactional, but not commercial, which is integral to the popularity of peer-to-peer communications.

This is no less true in a business context. Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer finds that an organization has no more credible spokesperson that “a person that looks like yourself” when formulating an opinion about a company—trumping the CEO, members of the board of directors and financial analysts, each of whom presumably has a profit motive for people to like a company.

People who didn’t used to matter now can matter.

Several factors—the expectation that businesses contribute society’s greater good, the rise of online activism and the global trend of people using social media to profess their personal values—have created an environment in which people that otherwise have no relationship with a given company can nevertheless assert themselves for the purpose of either helping or hindering that company.

Monsanto, a business-to-business company that sells seeds to farmers, was targeted by Greenpeace and other activist groups, as well as individual consumers opposed to GMOs. As a result, the company’s ability to gain regulatory approval of products in the U.S. and abroad was significantly undermined. Companies in the energy, pharmaceutical, financial services and retail industries have been similarly confronted.

In contrast, REI—a Seattle-based retailer of sporting goods and camping gear—closed its stores nationwide on Black Friday in 2016, the traditional start of the holiday shopping blitz, advocating that people instead spend time outdoors. #OptOutside became a bona fide movement not simply among outdoor enthusiasts, but also casual enthusiasts and even those who have grown disenchanted with the commercialization of the holidays. Government officials followed suit by allowing free admission in state parks throughout U.S.—and more than 150 business, like REI, paid employees to spend the day outdoors. The company’s brand was further strengthened and sales revenue increased.