Author of Managing Online Reputation: How to Protect Your Company’s Reputation in Social Media, Charlie Pownall, presents an abstraction of the understanding drawn from his 20 years of experience in public relations and mass communications for management of brand and reputation in the digital age
By Channy Lee
“It’s a very complex topic,” Charlie Pownall stresses, in explaining how multiple job titles he holds all add value to his capacity as a consultant specializing in online reputation management.
Coming from an educational background in journalism and work history in public relations, government communications, advocacy and social media marketing, Pownall thoroughly understands the transformation of the social web for reputation management.
His recently published book titled Managing Online Reputation: How to Protect Your Company’s Reputation in Social Media is an abstraction of the understanding drawn from his twenty years of experience in relevant fields.
While currently focusing on delivering trainings and consultancy in reputational management, the managing director of CPC & Associates Communications and Online Reputation Consultancy states that his book aims to not only consolidate the training he offers into words but also reclaim the dearth of practical advice and strategies in the area.
According to Pownall, there are many existing services claiming to specialize in reputational management, but in reality they only sell “puffed-up search engine solutions.” The author instead promises the first guide to where reputation and the Internet meet.
Public relations and communications, technology, marketing, and law are the four pillars considered in the book when dealing with reputation in the digital age. “Most existing guidance on the topic is written from one of these perspectives,” says Pownall. “But effective online reputation protection and defense is about all of these working together.”
Accordingly, a response to a reputational crisis online should not just be fitting to one of those categories but working in conjunction with another. His professional experiences that stretch across three out of the four areas to be considered are what invoked the writing of the book.
“What lies behind it is really classic risk management,” he explains. The book presents a systematic approach to the task, delineating different types of negative situations with a scale on which the type is defined, and exploring various options for online responses according to the type of issue presented.
“Forget the Internet for a minute. In classic crisis management, it pays to be really well-prepared,” he points out. “So this is about knowing what your probabilities are, what your weaknesses are, and then making sure that you are tracking them so that if this issue or another actually escalates into a problem, you’ll know how to deal with it.”
But issues of classic crisis management amplify in the context of an age where everything is digitized. The formerly simple taxonomy of public relations, communications and reputation management has transformed with burgeoning prominence of the Internet, where company valuation does not just depend on how stakeholders evaluate the company but expectations from a wide range of audience on the Internet need to be wholly accounted for.
Compounding the challenge of satisfying the public eye, the increased amount of information inundating the web and the speed at which it travels have led to an environment where problems rise out of the blue, in forms that are not easy to predict.
Information in the social media domain, especially, has directly fuelled the growing significance of issues of this nature. In the words of the author, the tendency to see social media as “a business and marketing Holy Grail” while “overlooking the hazards of the conquest” has also made crisis management in the online domain particularly challenging.
Pownall describes his book as a book of common sense. “It is not rocket science. It’s just about thinking through the issue and having a good idea of the shape of the issue, why they have emerged, when they are likely to emerge, and then what the right shape of your response is.”
“There’s actually relatively little information out there that in any way kind of provides a systematic approach to this,” he says. “I think my book is a first in that prospect, but I think it could be a whole lot more detailed. I mention five scenarios in the book, but there are hundreds of them.”
Reflecting on the process of putting together a 65,000 words long book, he says it was a challenge he posed on himself. “You learn a lot just by writing about the topic. I have gone to see what my colleagues in this area, and it helped a lot.”
“I’m a PR guy but I wanted to give more of a broader view [with the book]. With managers, security experts, cybersecurity people, IP lawyers, media lawyers, defamation experts, you name it, all sorts of different types of people, it gave me a much more rounded perspective, and it was a learning experience professionally for me as well.”
In exemplifying the kind of structured thinking discussed in the book, Pownall conceptualizes social media as a “trigger,” an “amplifier” and a “sustainer” to shaping reputation. As a trigger, a reputational problem begins online and begins with anything on the Internet that triggers people to express displeasure.
“And that can be a badly mishandled couple of service complaints, or it could be what is regarded as an inappropriate or even offensive marketing campaign or something,” he cautions. “This quickly escalates into a reputational problem. That’s why I think of it as a trigger.”
The amplifying effect of social media is described as the second way in which social media can have a large impact on reputation. “Maybe your company is polluting a river, or your management is seen as capable but possibly corrupt,” he explains. “Some aspects of your reputation – either positive or negative – will spread and be routinely lauded or castigated.”
Social media’s last role in the digital age of reputation management is as a sustainer, Pownall contends. Following a crisis, a company would want information circulation regarding the crisis to abate, and the general course of development is that media coverage, online discussion and information circulation about the crisis subside overall.
But the information will remain on platforms like Facebook and other search engines, becoming a part of the depth of information online, “which means that this stuff kind of gets sustained, often in the low level, but because it’s there, certainly it can spike up again, just because the information is accessible.”
Pownall predicts that the keyword to forthcoming changes in managing online and offline reputation is integration. There are two key aspects to this prediction: one is that “the ‘online’ bit of online reputation management is going to disappear” and that “it’ll just be ‘reputation management.’”
“Somehow the Internet and social media are regarded as separate, and it’s just plainly not the case,” he explains. With the perception that online and offline reputation are two separate entities, companies are bound to set reputation management programs that are not integrated enough.
The other aspect is the notion that responses are not as integral as the way threats have become. “Many organizations are still coming at this in a very stylized manner, so you’re not getting enough of PR or other parts of the organization working closely enough to tackle problems as they emerge,” Pownall says.
He foresees a focus on further integration in the approach to devising solutions. “You’re going to get lawyers, digital marketing people and PR people, and they need to be involved in working much more closely together.” Planning instigates a stance that is proactive rather than reactive, which is how Pownall purports online reputation management should aim to be.
He notes one of the key takeaways from his book is that “despite big data, reputation defense remains more art than science.” Being unquantifiable by nature and driven by perception, there are no set rules in the process through which a reputation forms. It is an observation based on experience that every case needs to be handled differently.
“Fundamentally, the book should be read first by the general business manager because they are worried about this area,” Pownall says, adding that it is a book ultimately meant for everyone interested in their reputation.
And, despite the emphasis on the complexity of issues involved, he makes no remarks to imply that reputation in the digital age is intractable. “The book will serve as something practical, readable and something anyone can read, find interesting and use to start thinking about managing your reputation online in a more structured way.”