Two-thirds (67 percent) of top global executives believe that their own companies’ reputations are threatened by online activity ranging from employee sabotage to misdirected e-mails, according to research from Weber Shandwick, conducted among more than 700 senior executives in more than 20 industries and 62 countries in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Our research found online reputation management officially making it to the top of leadership agendas as executives recognize that new challenges can topple even carefully-built corporate reputations,” says Andy Polansky, president of Weber Shandwick. “As the internet’s influence sweeps through corporate corridors, cubicles and boardrooms, the research identifies the reputation-building and reputation-busting forces online and offline dramatically shaping corporate reputations and what can be done about them.”
A majority of leaders are out of touch with rogue employees online, according to the PR firm. Two-thirds (66 percent) of global executives are either unaware or do not want to admit that employees are badmouthing their companies online. Only one-third (34 percent) of executives worldwide say they know of an employee who posted something negative online about their company, despite the ongoing prevalence of damaging digital chatter. (Jobvent.com, a website that allows visitors to rate their employers, includes comments on more than 7,000 companies, estimates that 70 percent of posted comments fall into the “I Hate My Job” category.)
In addition to global executives’ lack of knowledge about their employees online activities, the research also highlighted that far fewer global CEOs/chairmen are concerned than non-CEOs/chairmen (21 percent vs. 43 percent, respectively) about employee work-related discussions on social networking sites, video-sharing sites and employee grievance sites. Global CEOs/chairmen may be fooling themselves if they think that employee sabotage and hearsay is not taking place online every day.
“Leaders’ short-sightedness about employees going online to complain about their bosses, discuss salaries and leak confidential information highlights one of the most dangerous threats to corporate and professional reputations now and in the years ahead,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick. “We commissioned this critically important research with the EIU to surface key issues so that we can advise leaders about how they can successfully manage, monitor and safeguard reputations in an always-on and always-open marketplace.”
According to Weber Shandwick, all levels of employees have had a hand in potentially harming their company’s reputation online. An extraordinary 87 percent of global executives admit to having erroneously sent or received at least one electronic message (private e-mail, text or Twitter). Those in the corner office are not immune either: 80 percent of CEOs/chairs have mistakenly sent or received electronic messages themselves.
The unintended and unexpected consequences of misdirected electronic messages can taint, sometimes permanently, company reputations in seconds. With more than 60 billion e-mails circling the globe every day, it is hardly surprising that many leave their intended orbit, especially when research shows: people e-mail in bed (67 percent), while driving (50 percent), at bars or clubs (39 percent) and during business meetings (38 percent), according to the annual E-mail Addiction Survey conducted in 2008.
Says Gaines-Ross, “Risks that did not exist a decade ago are now on full display—internal e-mails going astray, negative online campaigns by dissatisfied customers, and online grumblings from disenchanted employees, bloggers and anyone else who has an opinion to voice. Our reputation management services ranging from early warning tools, online reputation monitoring and rapid response strategies could not be more timely or relevant.”
A wide range of topics were covered in the survey, including how global executives can use the internet to build and sustain strong corporate reputations.
When asked about the effectiveness of the internet as a resource for judging reputation, global executives reported that the best uses of the internet are for investigating business rivals (64 percent) and partners (60 percent), capturing customer feedback (63 percent) and exploring new employment opportunities (60 percent).
Interestingly, global executives are less likely to find the Internet useful for assessing corporate responsibility track records, charitable organizations and activist groups or NGOs.
“Perhaps leaders have fewer questions on corporate responsibility issues or suspect that companies can sometimes more easily mask reputational liabilities by ‘greenwashing’ their responsibility initiatives,” Gaines-Ross says. “It is also quite possible that executives leave social and environmental matters up to their corporate responsibility officers and advisors who are paid to know the ins and outs of corporate responsibility and NGOs.”
And finally, global executives believe that only one-half (49 percent) of information in corporate blogs is accurate and much fewer (14 percent) trust them as a good source for assessing reputation.