Author interview: Charlie Pownall

Today we share our author interview with Charlie Pownall, who wrote Managing Online Reputation, published by Palsgrave Pocket Consultants.

Charlie is a communications and reputation adviser who draws on over twenty years’ experience in public relations, government communications, advocacy, and digital and social media marketing to advise companies, public sector bodies and individuals how to protect, manage and defend their reputations.

What prompted you to write this book?

Social media is as challenging and potentially damaging for companies’ reputations as it is a fantastically powerful marketing and brand-building tool. But, in the rush to promote and sell their wares, this simple fact has been overlooked by many organisations, only to find themselves melting down in a sometimes spectacular fashion on Facebook and Twitter.

In many instances, these meltdowns are eminently avoidable marketing, customer service and other operational mishaps. But in others, the problems are deeper seated and frequently result from a siloed approach to managing their reputation, a serious strategic shortcoming in an environment in which their most valuable asset can be dismantled in seconds.

Things have been made no easier by a dearth of readable, practical, common-sense advice for middle and senior managers on how to safeguard and manage their company’s reputation online, and little by way of an established playbook for handling serious negative incidents when they occur. Things have been made no easier by a cottage industry of consultants, solutions providers and so-called ‘online reputation management’ firms peddling questionable quality advice and solutions.

It was to fill this gap, and to fill gaps in my own knowledge, that I talked to experts in fields such as media and IP law, social and environmental activism, IT security, digital forensics, crisis management, emergency response, social media monitoring and search engine marketing research that formed the basis of a series of online reputation workshops I have been running across the world over the past five years, and which now form the nucleus of my book, Managing Online Reputation.


What are the risks – if any – for B2B companies that choose not to engage in social media?

B2B companies are arguably less exposed online than their customer or citizen-facing counterparts, which are subject to significantly heightened expectations of good behaviour and transparency, and which need to manage these risks in a sceptical and frequently volatile environment.

Yet in a flat world where supply chains are under scrutiny as never before, B2B companies face many of the same risks as their more public cousins – the onus on good corporate behaviour, respect for the environment and the fair treatment of employees – it is just that the likelihood of these risks manifesting themselves tends to be lower. Nonetheless, if they do become public, the business and reputational impact can be very damaging.

That said, the risks are different for every organisation, and B2B firms are strongly advised to engage in careful online listening to help establish the degree to which social media is amplifying existing risks, and to identify emerging threats. Furthermore, they should not just listen but also participate – for the process of listening and responding results in a deeper and more nuanced understanding of different audiences’ needs and expectations, as well as a far greater ability to manage problems when they arise.

What are your favourite technology tools when it comes to monitoring social media?

There is now a panoply of social media monitoring tools covering many different aspects of listening – from broad-based listening tools that enable you to track how an organisation, brand or product/service performs on social media and how it compares to competitors; sophisticated market research tools that help uncover and even predict customer and stakeholder expectations and behaviours; as well as tools that focus solely on customer service, IT security, IP and brand management and other disciplines.

My favourite free tools are Google Alerts and Mention for social media monitoring, and Feedly for listening to latest news and commentary from journalists, bloggers and other opinion-formers. Of the paid tools, I recommend Synthesio for the breadth of its coverage, the ease of use of its platform and the fact that it is easy to set powerful custom alerts – something that is invaluable when escalating internally difficult online issues, incidents and crises. I’d also highlight Crimson Hexagon for the excellence of its sentiment analysis.

For brands who are naturally at risk for ‘digital wildfires’ (thinking public transportation, online betting, airlines) – how can one determine when a negative tweet or post is simply part of the usual negativity or something that could tip into a more serious situation, sparking a crisis?

Social media may be a naturally volatile environment, yet the great majority of complaints are contained by quick, thoughtful and personalised interventions and rarely result in bonefide corporate crises. Nonetheless, there are occasions when a complaint or allegation escalates quickly, or touches on a particularly sensitive or complex issue, and may significantly impact your business and/or reputation.

In these instances, it pays not to get panicked into an immediate response, or be seen to reply in an evasive or heavy-handed manner but, depending on the nature of the situation and level of the threat, to have a subject matter expert, working alongside a communications specialist and perhaps a lawyer to look carefully at the validity of the claim, the motivation of the detractor and the context in which the complaint/allegation is being made, before deciding on the appropriate response.

For companies based in several countries, do you recommend they have a single social media stream? Or many different ones, covering local issues in local languages? And why?

 The initial rush to get involved in social media led many large companies to set up hundreds and in some cases thousands of branded Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to market their wares and communicate with different sets of audiences. This was an understandable approach, as the more local you can be in terms of language, content and channel, the more traction you are likely to have.

However, many firms have since scaled back their social media presence, figuring that the more profiles they have, the harder it is to keep them all timely and interesting, and the harder they are to resource and fund. They also realised that a large, decentralised presence means you are more exposed to employees making inappropriate comments online and to social engineering, account hijacking, impersonation and other potential reputational issues.

Ultimately it is a balance between risk and reward – and this works out differently for every organisation. Whatever the model, it pays to have clear, strong governance at the centre, good internal links to all major business functions impacted by social technologies, and to realise that social media requires real commitment and is not something you can just leave alone or walk away from.

You talk about the ‘rogue employee’ being a fairly common social media issue. What do you think HR departments could be doing better to reflect today’s social media world?

Other than for recruitment, HR departments initially viewed social media primarily in terms of employees embarrassing themselves and their employers, or abusing company confidentiality and customer privacy. And, indeed, some companies continue to ban or limit access to the social web.

However, nowadays this view is in the minority – most organisations now appreciate that social technologies are a business imperative, and that it is next to impossible to completely put a halt to their own people making fools of themselves online. Rather, they need to focus on ensuring good behaviour and long-term employee loyalty by having a strong purpose, culture and values, fair compensation and leadership that is seen to be listening and responsive to employee concerns – all important activities for HR professionals.

In my experience, there’s also a tendency for employees to see HR as a necessary evil that keeps itself to itself and that should be dealt with only at arm’s length. To overcome these perceptions, HRs might usefully get more into the communication trenches by engaging directly and openly with employees, actively soliciting ideas and feedback, rather than relying on corporate communications or marketing to do their spadework.


And finally, we’d love to know your favourite business book of all time, and why.

There are many great business books that I find myself drawing on, but if there is one tome I find myself going back to regularly it is The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, which sets out how you should build trust and long-term, mutually rewarding relationships with clients or colleagues in simple, clear and compelling terms. Aimed principally at professional services consultants, it is eminently useful for anyone looking to forge a career in almost any organisation.


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