Posted by Charlotte Ebbutt, Solicitor
How to manage your reputation in the digital age?
Reputation is incredibly fragile in the digital age. Communication technology has generated a need for the constant production of content. This has placed enormous pressure on journalists to provide a continuous stream of news, in multiple formats. Members of the press must generate more material than ever before, and it has to grab the attention of readers, who have a vast array of information sources available.
The news landscape has changed dramatically in recent years and while media organisations continue to play a part in defining reputation, they no longer act as the sole gatekeepers of information. There have been fundamental changes in the way information is both published and consumed. In addition to navigating a constantly changing news landscape, companies and individuals must be alert to citizen journalism, as well as other elements of the digital landscape that influence opinions, such as social media feeds.
Social media websites and other online platforms have empowered everyone with a voice that can transcend geographical barriers. The conversation that flows on these platforms moves quickly and it can be unpredictable. Influencers can reach millions of people in seconds and tweets can spread like wildfire.
In addition to social media providing a stage for the rapid sharing of information, it also presents the opportunity for everyone to engage. There is pressure for companies and high-profile individuals to actively participate in these types of communication methods and the digital footprint of companies, leaders and employees is highly scrutinised.
The online space is dynamic and volatile. It is also becoming progressively difficult to opt out and not have a presence. Rather, in order to manage reputation and exercise some level of control over the landscape, it is essential to be proactive with taking command of this space. Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has indicated that online platforms are becoming increasingly popular as a source of information. In fact, online is gradually eroding the dominance of TV as a source of news.
The fast-paced digital news landscape can be extremely unpredictable and social media has the potential to fuel a global frenzy, with information snowballing and travelling around the world in seconds. However, sometimes it is not the immediate storm that poses the biggest threat to reputation in the digital age. Search engines play a crucial role in presenting an easily accessible overview of certain topics. Therefore, the legacy of specific incidents can leave a prominent imprint on the online profile. If the information flow is not sufficiently managed, historical issues can become a bugbear for many years to come.
Google is constantly used as a source of information when it comes to fact checking or conducting preliminary research. Smartphones make search engines an easily accessible tool that can be used anytime, anywhere. A quick search can provide a basic overview of a situation and answer even the most bizarre questions. Google is used by investors, journalists, employees and consumers alike to find out information about companies and individuals.
An old article about the CEO’s divorce may rank on page one for the company name or coverage about an employee dispute may steal the limelight. A school may have experienced an unfortunate event with a former teacher, which now has a domineering impact on its overall profile. Someone may have written a blog post that references inaccurate or out-of-date information and this comes up in prime position in a Google search, or a flippant tweet could have gained unwarranted distinction in the digital footprint.
In an era of online communication, the first page of Google provides the initial impression of an individual, business or organisation. In a world where the actions of leaders are often considered equally as interesting and important as corporate developments, the digital footprint of Board level executives also requires careful management.
Algorithms drive the ordering of information and a number of technical factors play a role with automatically determining what appears first. It is essential to analyse the information trail and implement a strategy that helps to control reputation in this area. Neglecting it can magnify problems during an unforeseen crisis and have a long-term impact on the perception of your business and key persons.
It is important to be aware of the online landscape. An audit of the current profile for a business and its leaders is an essential place to begin, regardless of whether there is an existing reputation crisis. In fact, evaluating the current landscape and implementing pre-emptive actions can be crucial for minimising the impact of any unforeseen issues that may arise in the future. It is important to think about what keywords matter and what territories are relevant (the online profile can vary in different countries), as well as what content you would like to feature prominently.
It is also crucial to take a holistic approach to reputation management in the digital age. Business leaders, communications personnel, lawyers and technical specialists all play a role in supporting the digital footprint and providing the best result.
Dr Laura Toogood is Managing Director at Fieldmaster Group. She is the author of ‘Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age’ and is currently working on her second book ‘The Death of Privacy: Fear and Security in the Digital Age’.
Where to start
When dealing with the legal toolkit available to combat attempts to cause damage to reputation, the benefits of considering advice on claims in defamation are relatively well known. Remedies are available to those whose reputation is substantially harmed by a statement, subject to exceptions. Options include financial restitution and more practical steps, such as the requirement for an apology in open court. Re-publication of that apology in press releases or on an organisation’s website can reduce the impact of the offending statement. In some circumstances, the threat of formal action halts the conduct altogether.
Social media platforms are now sensitive to the impact on their own reputations arising from offensive or defamatory postings. Codes of Conduct are published for each platform with points of contact to which a breach of the Codes can be reported. Whilst this does not prevent the posting in the first place it can help to limit the potential damage it causes and to deter future posting.
What if you cannot demonstrate sufficient impact from the statement to satisfy the test for defamation or the thresholds of social media arbitrators?
There are other avenues for redress familiar to privacy specialists. If the motivation of those making the statement was malicious and the damage done was to your business reputation you may be able to bring a claim for malicious falsehood. This also covers circumstances where the maker of the statement has little credibility but nevertheless his or her actions have a negative impact. Privacy specialists can advise on a tailored solution, whatever the circumstances.
If you have any enquiries, please contacts Emma Banister Dean on:
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