In Q3 2020, Transmission Private conducted research into the impact of an individual’s digital profile on their reputation and the online sources of information the public trusted the most. The research report can be downloaded here.
Reputation Management: building your digital profile
Jordan: So, Luke, we received in the office today our latest bit of research based on a survey of 2,000 people. We asked the public what they thought of people when they searched wealthy individuals and families online. Now, just as a starter for ten, I was probably most surprised by the fact that 40 percent of people said that they would feel more negatively if there was no information about a wealthy individual or business owner online or they had no digital profile. Has that surprised you as well?
Luke: Very much so. We have a lot of conversations with clients, their advisors, and also just general people in the high-net-worth community, and they just take a broad strategy, which is less is more, I suppose. They’re always very hesitant to put more information online about themselves, even in a controlled setting, they like to keep their head below the parapet. So yes, quite surprising, and I think this definitely dispels that myth.
Jordan: I don’t want to say it’s frustrating, but we’ve been doing this now for a number of years, and I think that mentality is what we end up hitting against most—the sense that wealthy successful individuals, business owners, next-gen members, and their advisors think that the best way to manage their online profiles is to be completely invisible.
I suppose we set about this research because we instinctively thought that this was not right, but it’s good to have some stats that firmly puts this to bed. And it makes sense. When you search an individual who you know has been successful—and you can find absolutely nothing about them, nothing but passing mentions on Companies House, etc—I know I instinctively have a sense that maybe there’s something untoward going on here.
Maybe it doesn’t lead necessarily down those darker routes, but it just raises a question mark above their head.
I know that you’ve spoken to me a lot in the past about not only the negative implications of not having an online profile, but also the lost opportunity of having a badly curated digital profile too. It’s not only a way to mitigate the negatives, mitigate the fact that people perceive it as bad that you have no online profile, but also it’s a lost opportunity to benefit from having a good online profile.
Online Privacy: controlling the narrative
Luke: Yes, I think that’s right. And actually, I’ll give you an interesting story about a conversation that we had with a multi-generational family about this research—because I think usually there’s a bit of a misconception that the older you are, the more you’re hesitant to put information online about yourself, maybe because of a lack of understanding about online and the Internet.
Actually, we had a completely opposite conversation with a client whereby the principal of the family who was 60+ really gets it. He really understands that putting more information online is a competitive advantage for himself and the company. And the kids that are all involved in the family business are actually very hesitant about putting information about themselves online.
I’ll say to those clients—and in fact, I have these conversations all the time with people who are very concerned about if they put more information online, they need to be reducing and hindering their own privacy—I’d say to them, that actually, the balance on the scales has tipped.
You no longer have to communicate via the media and you no longer have to sit in front of journalists in order to communicate to external audiences. There’s now a way, given the fact that there’s more controlled routes of communicating from social media and from personal family websites, of controlling the narrative online and doing it in a way that satisfies that concern about privacy.
Jordan: I know the conversation that you’re talking about there, Luke. I think there is a concern at the back of people’s minds that if they start to selectively put out a little bit more information, a tiny bit more information, it is a Pandora’s box that can’t be closed again. It’s a one-way street, and they can never go back.
What you said there is right, and we know it’s right. We talk about it a lot; this is not like giving an interview with the press. You can very selectively and carefully write an executive profile that highlights your professional credentials and your success, one which provides a narrative perhaps around the source of your wealth and your impact. You can then place it in a controlled way on your own website.
If in a year, that positioning changes, that’s completely fine because you have complete control to change it because it exists on your website. Or if you get uncomfortable, again it just can be taken down.
Now, the second part of this research was not so much about online visibility, but accepting that something has to be out there. What sources do the public trust? I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the results, but I know some of our clients will be. That is that although broadsheets were high, were respected and were considered a believable source, they were actually not number one
Luke: Yes, I think that’s the biggest takeaway actually. It’s nice doing this research because you can, I suppose, in many ways prove your own instincts on the perceptions and the judgments that we make.
It’s something that we’ve been talking about for quite some time, which is that actually if you want to communicate to external audiences, it’s better to do that via a family website than sitting in front of a journalist and having an interview in The Telegraph, the Times, The Guardian, or wherever it might be.
So that’s the key takeaway for me. That actually, a successful individual’s online profile more receptive to external audiences if it’s put on a controlled platform.
Trusting information online
Jordan: And the key result you’re talking about there, Luke, is the fact that in terms of trust, the public in this research said that they trusted information on company, personal and controlled websites—like a family office website or a family business website—more than broadsheets.
I think we’re going to see that trust in personal websites go up over time. That’s because I think more stakeholders, especially professional stakeholders like financial institutions, want to hear from the family of the individual directly. They trust that the message hasn’t been diluted or misrepresented.
If they can go up, there’s their biography, or there’s their profile on their investment vehicle or family website. They can go on, they can read it, and they trust that.
Now, of course, it wasn’t the top, but the result is that it was higher than broadsheets. It was much higher than tabloids, much higher than social media too. But of course, the top two, which are not necessarily surprising but show you the importance of online information. Number one was Wikipedia, the most trusted source. Do you have Wikipedia strategy? If not, you need one. And then search results—again, what turns up for a search?
I also think this is really interesting. Because I know from my own personal use of Google, I will search someone’s name or search a business and not even click on the links. I might just scan the results. But what do those headlines say? I get my sense of someone from those headlines rather than actually going directly to the source of information. I don’t know if you do that too?
Luke: No, I definitely do that, and just to go back a point—which I think is really important to emphasise. Which is, I can look at the statistics and know that less than ten people a month are searching for my name.
But If you’re a wealthy businessperson, if you’re on The Sunday Times Rich List, if you have a net worth of over a £1billion, I can guarantee that the level of interest for you online will be a lot higher than the level of interest of me online. I think clients and high-net-worths need to reflect, they can’t stop people from searching them online, but what they can control is what people read about them.
In many respects, there’s not a big step that clients have to take. Often, if you’re a high-net-worth individual, you’ve got a family holding website or a company website. Sometimes just putting a controlled biography on that website, doing it in the right way so it ranks for a search of their name online, is just a quick, easy win that allows them take to control the narrative for themselves as an individual.
Reputational Recommendations: the next steps
Jordan: That brings it to the recommendations bit. Based on this research, what would I be saying to a client? Firstly, I would assure them that this research doesn’t mean that they all have to jump onto Instagram or Twitter. In fact, social media is not very trusted. They don’t need to indiscriminately throw themselves into the public domain. There is a balance here.
After you recognise that this interest is out there about you, and after you recognise that you’re going to have to satisfy this interest then it’s not just a question of ignoring it like an ostrich. It becomes a process of sitting down and saying: “What are we comfortable about articulating? What are we comfortable about saying about ourselves? Where do we place it?”. It might not be more than five paragraphs and that’s completely fine.
So, after you’ve listened to this research, after you hear about it, this isn’t a fait accompli that you have to throw yourself out into the public domain. It’s about having a sophisticated discussion. Sit around the table as a family, talk amongst each other, get comfortable with what you want to communicate about yourselves, and then very quietly, selectively, and subtly find routes to communicate that in a controlled way.
Luke: I completely agree with that, Jordan, as you’d expect. I’d make one final point, which is something that I love doing for clients. You’ve worked with them for six months; you take control of their online profile. Maybe you control their Wikipedia entry or there’s a control biography for them on their family holding website, family office website, or even their personal office website. There’s a couple of bits of controlled media pieces on that first page as well.
And they call up and say, “Luke, I’m going into this really important meeting with the Head of Goldman Sachs or the Head of HSBC, or even going into a meeting with a journalist.” They say, “I really want them to know this about me” and I can just go on to those online profiles, I can make the changes.
I can optimise the content 24/7 around the clock, to position them in the right way for that meeting that they’re going to have. Because we know that it doesn’t matter who you are. Even when we’re meeting people, we do this all the time.
We Google people to see what turns up for a search and if you can control the content that’s sitting on that first page through controlled assets, then it’s a real win. Most of our clients find that incredibly valuable. It’s just a shame that more people don’t do it.