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Navigating leadership in the age of online activism

The nature of the modern world means that company executives are in the limelight now more than ever. CEOs must ensure they have a strategy for how they communicate — it could be the difference between being caught up in an online media scandal and completing the deal of a lifetime.

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The nature of the modern world means that company executives are in the limelight now more than ever. A CEO is expected to have an online presence and do the rounds in the media, all while performing the duties of their role. This is a double-edged sword because it allows an executive to put their best foot forward in reputational terms, but it also leaves them exposed to public criticism as well.

In the past, the public passed criticism of CEOs and executives primarily by word of mouth, which is an incredibly influential way of exchanging information. The average person is 90 per cent more likely to trust something recommended by a friend, so we can infer that the opposite is also the case.

Now, instead of the public having a small group of trusted friends who they rely on for this kind of information, they have a much larger circle of online content creators, social media accounts and forums who influence their decisions through their own word of mouth.

This is particularly important for executives, who are now at significant risk of personal attacks online. In our recent research, 83 per cent of the public said they would express anger with a senior executive if they objected to their behaviour in some way. This is especially pertinent if the member of the public in question happens to have an audience or following online, which would amplify the negative fallout. Even if they don't, a social media storm can start with a single tweet.

Political activism is also much more prevalent today than it was in the past, and that's because it's more accessible than ever. Previously, campaigners took to the streets to protest and petition, voicing their opinions in person. Now, social media and Charge.org petitions are the main catalysts for making a difference.

Our research found that almost a quarter of younger people would sign a petition to show their anger at an executive. Many won't stop there, instead taking to social media to air their grievances.

For this reason, executives must ensure that what they put online is carefully communicated. What a CEO posts can even have drastic effects on the markets. We have all seen how stock prices in Facebook and Tesla rise and fall depending on Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk's actions. These celebrity founders are an extreme example, but there is ample reason for less well-known executives to care about their reputation.

Often when executives think about reputation, it's in the context of personal attacks, negative press and damaging online content like I've mentioned. However, they need to stop thinking of a positive reputation as a shield, to which nothing bad sticks, and start thinking of it as a podium that elevates them above their competitors.

If, for example, an executive has a reputation as a successful dealmaker, that will grant them access to even more lucrative deals. If their reputation is as a competent financier, then banks and financial institutions will be more likely to offer their company loans. A good reputation will also open the door for them at other organisations, be that in new C-suite roles or as a non-executive director.

A good reputation attracts the positive and repels the negative. Instead of sitting on their hands, executives need to take conscious steps to improve their reputation. This starts online — be that on a personal website, in an online publication or through their company, CEOs must ensure they have a strategy for how they communicate because it could be the difference between being caught up in an online media scandal and completing the deal of a lifetime.

Aaron Hill is an Executive at Transmission Private, specialising in digital communications, digital media, and managing online profiles.

Transmission Private publishes a monthly newsletter that tracks the future of reputation management for private clients.

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Transmission Private publishes a monthly newsletter that tracks the future of reputation management for private clients.