Reputation in an age of outrage

Reputation is increasingly an online phenomenon. That’s not to say reputation is only relevant online, or that it’s wholly built and destroyed online, but rather that it’s now largely mediated online.

By this I mean that the choice of focus, the framing and speed of issues and the casting of villains and heroes happens first online, before being hashed out in newspapers, on broadcast and in politics.

This is because the media agenda, and subsequently the political agenda, is increasingly integrated with and driven by arguments and outrages taking place first in the digital sphere, particularly social media.

The economic reason for this is well covered – more and more journalists have an online content role to fulfill, and many of them have very little time and funding with which to report large story quotas.

The cultural reason is also well covered – political rhetoric is increasingly populist and reactive, while public discourse has come to be defined by tribal affiliation, emotional argument and division.

Of course, the machinery of government, business and society grinds on in the background. Relationships and reputations rise and fall, as ever. But the sharp end of things is increasingly digital.

What this means is that the issues of the day are defined more and more by whatever is moving people online. Whatever the daily focal point for outrage and hot-takes is can quickly bleed into the media.

While the media system is increasingly defined in many ways by the requirements of the digital sphere, politicians are also reacting with populist policy positions and media-savvy statements to fit the times.

This means that organisations concerned with reputation management (which really should be nearly everyone nowadays) now find themselves operating in a febrile environment that’s hard to forecast.

But while the specific issues of the moment and the rapidly changing positions of media and political stakeholders are nearly impossible to anticipate, there are some trends than can guide our approach.

On the occasion of the World Wide Web’s 30th birthday, Tim Berners-Lee, often described as the creator of the internet, published a piece identifying three major sources of dysfunction affecting the internet.

He argued that the internet, as a broad system and environment, is being damaged by:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, i.e. state-sponsored hacking, criminal behavior and harassment
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives, i.e. revenue models that reward clickbait
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, i.e. outraged and polarised discourse

Berners-Lee is thinking here about the internet experience overall, but as I’ve argued, the three sources of dysfunction he’s outlined now hold true also for those dealing with reputation management.

Deliberate, malicious intent has been facilitated by the anonymity and immediacy of social media, with rumours spreading faster than ever before. Once an idea picks up pace online, it’s very hard to address.

This isn’t just a political or cultural phenomenon. It’s not hard to imagine implications for business – unscrupulous competitors starting rumours, disgruntled employees making unsubstantiated claims.

This is exacerbated by the system design highlighted in Berners-Lee’s second point. Economic pressure on the news industry has led to the development of revenue models that reward clickbait over quality.

The problem is made worse by the fact that, while the quality of some output is unconsciously warped by these models, others consciously play them, leading to large audiences for highly partisan outlets.

Again, these trends are relevant for businesses. Because of the influence of the digital sphere, anyone can get pulled into a heated debate with very little warning, but very real reputational consequences.

At the more extreme end, doctored images and video are becoming increasingly easy to produce. Last year a Belgian political party created a fake video of Donald Trump that was widely shared as real.

This incident plays into Berners-Lee’s third point, that the quality of online discourse has become extremely outraged and polarised, making audiences very quick to react to anything that fits their views.

When combined it’s easy to imagine the effect these sources of dysfunction are having on the public sphere, feeding in from social media through to legacy media and into politics – and back again.

This brings us back to the original point – reputation is increasingly mediated online, with all the implications that carries for the ability to discuss issues with any kind of balance and consideration.

To take control of their reputation in this kind of environment, businesses need to assume a far more proactive position than they’re used to. They need to think about a constant process of communication.

Dealing with the kinds of problems presented by Berners-Lee’s three sources of dysfunction requires sustained, strategic communications – something far more involved than simply issuing a statement.

Communications, especially reputation management, now requires a level of vigilance and preparation most businesses won’t have considered. Failure to do so could wind you up in the eye of the next storm.

Cody Want, Corporate Communications