Digital Voices and Corporate Reputation

In just one click and a nanosecond, social media have a lot to say about corporations, their behavior and, ultimately, their reputations.

As studies show, those digital voices are increasingly loud and influence plenty of others along the way.

According to the most recent findings of the Pew Research Internet Project, 73 percent of adult Internet users are on social networking sites, a dramatic increase from only 9 percent in 2005. And they run the gamut from millennials to baby boomers.

The result is that more and more digital voices simply say what's on their minds and connect with one click of the "send" button and don't look back. Using tablets, iPads, keyboards, smartphones or digital surface devices kept close at hand, they share ideas, emotions, and often mix fact and opinion... with no filter to what they have to say to anyone, friend or not, who might be listening.

On social media, anything goes, unlike the fact-checking of traditional media -- where an editor or reporter has the responsibility to separate fact from fiction before publication. The result is that opinion carries the same weight as fact. Tone and rhetoric weigh heavily. Criticism and praise are placed side-by-side, often without anything other than anecdotes or hearsay to back either of them up.

This past weekend's The New York Times Sunday Review section had a very interesting opinion essay by Karl Taro Greenfeld, journalist and author. In that article, titled "Faking Cultural Literacy," Mr. Greenfeld talks about faking it when asked for his views on books, film, or even one of Pope Francis' tweets. He goes on to write about how deeply social media have affected what we say and how we think:

"It's never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything.

"And because we spend so much time staring at our phones and screens, texting and tweeting about how busy we are, we no longer have the time to consume any primary material. We rely instead on the casual observations of our 'friends' or the people we 'follow' or, well, who actually?

"Who decides what we know, what opinions we see, what ideas we are repurposing as our own observations? Algorithms, apparently...."

A subhead to the print version of that article put it bluntly, using just one sentence: "Our canon is determined by whatever gets the most clicks."

Harris Interactive, the global independent research organization, has been studying the reputations of companies for the past 14 years. In its most recent study, the 2013 survey of the general public's view on "The Reputations of the Most Visible Companies," it makes a critical distinction between "seekers" of information on companies and "bystanders," those who listen to what the seekers have to say. In that analysis, social media and digital communication take center stage. Importantly, seekers outnumber bystanders. And those seekers, Harris says:

  • "Participated in a conversation with others about how a company conducts itself.
  • "Decided not to do business with a company because of something ... learned about how the company conducts itself.
  • "Proactively tried to influence friends' or family's perceptions about a company....
  • "Shared any information about a company through social media or email."

According to Richard Notarianni, Executive Director of Strategy at Havas Worldwide, a leading global brand communications firm: "Digital is key to reputation. The rise of social media and 24/7 web access virtually anywhere at any time have created many more active, reputation-conscious consumers."

The connection between behavior, perceptions, reputation and social media has never been clearer.

There is little doubt that each one of us feels the impact of seekers when we assess the behavior and reputation of companies, whether we are thinking about applying for a job, buying products, investing, doing business, or just chatting with friends.

Remember the age-old admonition attributed to Socrates: "Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of."

As social media continue to have a ferocious influence on reputations, corporations have a mandate to focus on their reputations much differently than ever before.

So, what has become the new mandate?

There are five steps that are critical to corporate reputation at companies of all sizes in this digital age of communication:

  1. Embrace social media and transparency as the tone from the top, starting in the C-Suite.
  2. Review each decision with a view toward what it says to others about company values and behavior - do they walk the talk?
  3. Enforce a corporate culture that accepts new voices and ideas from unanticipated places.
  4. Look to your employees as your greatest advocates on corporate culture, innovation, passion, company pride and social change.
  5. And remember that reputation is also a risk management tool, ready if something might go awry ... and it undoubtedly will at some point, even in the best of companies.

After all, for corporations -- just as it is for our personal lives -- reputations are precious and critical to success