If cybersecurity-related issues pose one of the greatest threats to corporate reputation over the coming years, it is critical to understand not only the risks, and how to mitigate them, but also where the opportunities in corporate reputation building lie. Jennifer Janson, Managing Director, Six Degrees asks: are you ready for the reputation economy?

In an age where information is amplified and magnified globally via social media, one careless decision or action can damage a company’s reputation in a matter of hours. This fairly recent social media dynamic, coupled with the fact that information security is one of the biggest threats to corporate reputation, mean technology experts have a duty to recognise our role in reputation building and risk mitigation, and act accordingly.

Reputational risk can emerge from almost any area of your business; from operations and customer service to sales and third-party suppliers. The only thing that is certain is that at some stage, you will face an issue that has the potential to damage your business’s reputation. How you choose to deal with it could have a profound impact.

Your reputation: who owns it?

Your company's reputation lies in the hands of your customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders, and it goes far beyond ‘likes’, tweets and posts. However, you have the ability to influence these people's thinking - your company’s behaviour is the most powerful tool your business has in building a positive reputation.

However, before a company even thinks about communicating with the outside world, it needs to look at its core values, its desired reputation and the behaviour of employees at every level of the business. How do you know that the behaviour of every employee is in line with your core values? Can you demonstrate a consistent track record when it comes to company behaviour? Do you have systems in place to identify potential risks at the earliest stage?

Over the past five years, reputational risk has become a board level issue, crossing traditional internal silos. Most large businesses will have systems and process for tracking the various areas that might contribute to reputational risk. These might include social media monitoring, health and safety incident tracking, environmental or sustainability impact measurement, cybersecurity threat alerts and so on.

Yet British businesses are waking up to the opportunity the issues around reputational risk provide. Warwick-based Rivo Software was initially conceived as a service to enable large multinational businesses to capture and analyse incidents relating to health and safety. Rivo realised the impact that this sort of information can have in the boardroom, and has its sights set on much broader areas that contribute to reputational risk.

Today, Rivo can track and analyse data relating to everything from minor incidents on the shop floor to the business’s safety record (think of a logistics company with fleets of vehicles on the road, for example). It can identify patterns of high-risk situations and take action to avoid putting its employees at risk in the first place. The potential to weave in the disparate systems collecting risk-related data from all over the business is huge.

Ultimately, having detailed data on risk-related issues means businesses will be able to predict where potential risks lie and take steps to mitigate them before they occur.

Until we reach this data utopia, what are businesses doing today? In particular, how is the IT community contributing to the shaping of a positive reputation? Are chief information security officers (CISOs) regularly communicating with chief reputation officers? Are operational changes being made quickly, where required?

One of the greatest potential areas for attention relates to customer data. Whether they choose to harness it or not, companies are increasingly becoming rich repositories for customer data of every description. But are they protecting that data? This is particularly important for small and medium-sized enterprises that may not have a dedicated CISO or even an in-house IT person. A breach of that data, coupled with exposure on social media, could mean the end of your business.

In practice

If reputation is built by aligning core values and company behaviour, how do you ensure that the two are well communicated and effectively woven into the fabric of the organisation?

It starts at the top. A CEO waiting for four days before appearing on site where nearly 50 people died following the explosion of 72 tankers filled with crude oil on one of his trains was widely criticised and the company has since gone bankrupt.

The story would have created news headlines no matter when it happened, but in the age of social media, a simple #LacMegantic tag on Twitter ensured the story was (and continues to be) promulgated worldwide, with each new revelation. Business leaders take note: are your most senior team members 'walking the walk'? In times of crisis, the only certainty is that any inconsistencies will be exposed.

If you are concerned about business reputation (as every good business should be), as a starting point, ask yourself these questions

  • Is everyone in the business - from the person answering the phones to the person leading the company - clear about the company’s core values and how these should influence their behaviour, day to day?
  • Are the ‘skeletons in your closet’ communicated regularly to senior communications experts within the business?
  • Are operational changes being made to reinforce the company’s core values? For example, if one of your core values is to be ‘customer-centric’ do you have the most robust systems in place to protect your customer data?
  • Do you know what people are saying about your business or your industry online?
  • Have you got a plan in place to cope with an unexpected crisis that begins to spread over digital media?
  • Who’s responsible for your company’s reputation (the single, named person)?

Stepping back

Taking the time to look at your business from the inside out and ensuring that you have the systems and processes in place to be the business you want to be is a good thing. In this hyper-connected world it’s easy to succumb to the pressures to be on every social media platform, with the most creative, award-winning campaigns.

Take the time to understand your audiences, really acknowledge whether your business can give them what they need and make adjustments accordingly. Then figure out how to communicate consistently, with a human voice that’s authentic to your business.

There is one non-negotiable, though: monitoring. For any business it is critical to listen to what is being said - online and offline - about your brand, your competitors and your industry. How can you expect to influence reputation if you don’t know what it is? If there’s one action to take today, this is it.

There are plenty of monitoring services out there and you can tailor the depth and frequency of the information you receive.

Where next?

Understanding the potential of the ‘reputation economy’ is one thing, but harnessing the opportunities it creates is quite another. Ensuring your company has a reputational strategy in place is critical. However, to do it properly will take the time and commitment of senior executives throughout the business, not just the communications team.

In order for the strategy to drive the success of the business, you need to be willing to make operational changes that will fundamentally contribute to the reputation you aim to achieve. Are you up for the challenge?