What a 16-year-old and a Scientist can teach us about Online Reputation Management

Shawna Rossi

Brands, celebrities, companies (and even scientists) continue to find out the hard way that our culture of social sharing can be a reputational minefield where what you say, post, or even wear can spark unexpected backlash you never intended. Recent history is littered with examples of missteps where an online firestorm can suddenly emerge and create a reputational issue that can’t easily be erased.

Newer online trends include brands that create purposeful viral ‘hoaxes, where the event is a cover up for something else and the real architect is later revealed – sometimes with serious and unintended repercussions.  The use of the hashtag can also be an integral online strategy where a cause, event or experience is categorized into a common topic. In both these cases, if the strategy is not executed properly, the online world can quickly turn against whoever is behind the effort.

Canadian communications giant, Rogers, learned this lesson the hard way when they created the hashtag #Rogers1Number, to launch a new service, which they paid to have on Twitter’s list of trending topics for 24 hours. Twitter users, hundreds of them customers hijacked the hashtag to instead vent about issues with Rogers, ignoring the positive messaging about the new service as was intended.

A recent example of viral hoax is the online phenomenon of Alex from Target who became a literal overnight celebrity when his photo was spotted on Tumblr, tweeted, and it exploded through the Twitter “fangirls.” Within a day, the hashtag #alexfromtarget was trending worldwide and he suddenly had over 100,000 new Twitter followers (he now has an official Twitter page and 745,000+ followers).

An unknown U.S. marketing company, Breakr, has tried to take credit for the hoax, claiming it was a carefully crafted viral campaign. However, everyone involved has denied ever working with Breakr and they are now being questioned for their authenticity. Whether they are the company behind one of the cleverest online campaigns in recent history, or if they are a bandwagon brand trying to take credit for a viral sensation, there’s little evidence their strategy worked – except for Alex.

Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists behind the ESA Rosetta Mission which achieved a first for human kind – landing a probe on a comet – has also learned the hard way that something as simple as your wardrobe can hurt your reputation if it goes viral. The shirt he decided to wear to report on the project overshadowed the biggest day of his life, and now Google searches of his name bring the result of “sexist t-shirt” and the video of his tearful apology, instead of his historic achievement.

Celebrities are not immune to the ire of the internet especially when misconduct is involved. When Bill Cosby and his team asked Twitter users to: “Go ahead. Meme me! #CosbyMeme” – Twitter fired back with images that focused on long-standing sexual abuse allegations.

Closer to home, Jian Ghomeshi’s reputation did a complete 180 within days of turning to his online following on Facebook and Twitter to try to get out in front of a personal crisis that was about to become public. The story exploded and while initially the internet was divided and many sided with the former CBC personality on his story of consent and wrongful dismissal, online sentiment quickly changed towards him as more stories about his past became public, and a subsequent police investigation began.

The Internet can be an unknown entity because users drive so much of the content and their responses to messages can’t be controlled. Companies should tread carefully and heed some important lessons:

  1. Don’t turn a blind eye to the dark side of the internet – just as with any communications strategy, be sure to think of all possible angles, including the negative feedback, before an online strategy is deployed
  2. Think carefully before you try to use online tools to generate positive PR for yourself – the wrong strategy can do more harm than good
  3. Manage your message but understand there is no real online control – be ready and prepared to adapt your strategy quickly if you need to go on the defensive
  4. Don’t try to manipulate your followers – online sentiment can change quickly if users suspect the message is disingenuous and they can turn against you if they feel like they’re being spun
  5. Try not to ‘poke the bear’ – you can’t win over the vocal community of trolls who seek out controversies and make contentious comments designed to further ignite a situation
  6. Be honest about your reputational past – acknowledge the skeletons in your brand’s closet and ensure you’re prepared to explain and defend
  7. Understand the risk vs. the reward – social media engagement can be uncertain but can also bring timely, cost-effective feedback that can be utilized to make improvements to the business. Be prepared for all possibilities