In this episode of TP Bites, Jordan Greenaway and Luke Thompson discuss how the individual reputations of CEOs, senior executives and company leaders are at significant risk of personalised attacks by the public.
Jordan: Another month, another bit of research. I’m joined by Luke, to discuss our latest research note which is titled ‘Executives face public backlash’.
Based on a survey that we conducted in Q1 2021, investigating how members of the public and other disenfranchised stakeholders may try to attack executives if they disagree with their behaviour for some reason. And the result was again not surprising, but interesting.
I think it will trigger a lot of alarms in boardrooms. So, the headline result was that 83% of members of the public said that if they were dissatisfied with an executive‘s behaviour in some way, they would seek to express that anger publicly. The reason I think that’s important, and somewhat surprising to some people, is that there’s been a sense - over the last 10 years and probably more recently, the last five years - that company reputations are at stake if a business makes an ill-advised step and annoys the public.
But this is the first time that we’ve seen that those reputational risks don’t only exist at the corporate level, but also extend to the individuals within the companies be those senior execs, owners or board members. So Luke, when you were reading through this research, what were your reflections,
Internet risks: Reputational attacks have changed over time
Luke: It’s a bit of a sign of the times, in my opinion. Because I think 10 years ago - or maybe even further back than that, when the internet was in its kind of infancy stage - I think those reputational risks for companies and for individuals usually came from one direction. Maybe in the form of a media outlet, maybe it was in the form of protesting against a brand or boycotting a product.
I think now those risks are coming from all different directions because of the internet age. Those risks come from social media, through the traditional media, Google reviews, Trustpilot, all these various different review platforms. So, there are many different forms that these risks can take. I think what this shows, as you just said, is it’s not just a reputational risk for the brand, but also for those individuals.
There’s another reflection that I had, which is about board members. The group of individuals that came to my mind were those business owners and founders that share a name with their brands, because they’re highly associated with the company. So, if the company makes a poor, ill advised-decision, then that backlash will have a ripple effect on that business owner and that founder, even if they’re not involved in the original decision-making process.
So, I think all Board members, CEOs, and investors are now at risk. My overarching point was to encourage clients and people who might be facing similar situations to think more proactively about it all. I don’t think they should pop this to one side and forget about it, or wait until it happens. They need to get on the front foot. They probably already have media monitoring or social media monitoring for the company, extend that and put that in place for the investors and the C-suite executives as well.
Online reviews: Individuals are also at risk
Jordan: That’s really interesting, Luke. And when you were speaking there, it triggered a little case study that we’ve experienced over the last three or four months.
I didn’t actually think about Google reviews. Because when you think Google reviews, you think about a company. We had an example, just three or four months ago, where someone used a Google review to attack an individual. They found that family’s corporate vehicle, their investment vehicle and their foundation, and they used that as a hook to attack the individuals within those companies. And I think there’s always an instinct to think that reviews only apply to companies and can’t be leveraged to attack individuals. That’s wrong.
Now, what I wanted to turn to next was we’ve discussed how the public will want to express their anger about individuals, but how do they do it? I thought this was really interesting. They try to do it in two ways. They try to exact financial damage on those individuals and the companies. The most popular response, if a member of the public was irritated or disenfranchised with the behaviour of an individual, was to boycott their company and boycott it on the basis of that individual’s behaviour.
The second reason, or the second way, they would go about attacking that individual was to try and deal reputational damage. One in ten said they would go on social media and call out that individual directly. Now, what surprised me is that one in ten also said they would write to the media.
I think there’s a sense that you have to do something really, really bad if a member of the public was going to write to the media. But one in ten said, if they saw an executive do something that they disagreed with or had their own personal concern with, they would directly write to the media to try to raise publicity about the issue. That has got to shake some executives awake, doesn’t it, Luke?
Digital profile: Attacks can spiral out of control and do long-term damage
Luke: I think so. I think generally there’s now more, as I said previously, mechanisms. Now, for someone who is really intent on doing as much reputational damage to the business and those individuals behind the business, there are more means for them to do that - and more means for them to do that anonymously as well.
An example of a worst-case scenario, I don’t think this would happen in most cases, but a negative mention on social media by an anonymous user turns into more mentions on social media. Which then turns into a negative bit of media coverage, maybe a negative bit of trade coverage. That trade coverage about that individual might then sit on the first page of Google for a search of that individual’s name.
So, I think most people tend not to think about the worst-case scenario. But one reason why I’m so passionate about this is because there are some easy off-the-shelf, low hanging fruit that executives can do. For example, monitor your name on social media - there are various different platforms to do that. We provide a monitoring system for all of our clients. If there are any potential clients listening, then they should get in touch and enquire about that. But even if they don’t want to go through us, there are other means of doing that.
I encouraged everyone to pick those low hanging fruits and protect their own reputations.
Jordan: It’s really interesting what you said there, Luke. Because as you said, I don’t think this would happen in most cases. And I think executives go to bed and say “I don’t think it would, or it’s very unlikely for it to happen. So I don’t really need to think about it”. But let’s change that word to “could”.
Just because it’s unlikely for it to happen, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a risk that it will happen. The stakes and the damage are so high that even if there’s a 5% chance, that could ruin a company and ruin your own personal reputation for the rest of your career.
Reputational attacks: Young people will go the extra mile
Luke: Another couple of points to add to that. I think some individuals are more at risk than others. So, I think it also depends on what industry you’re in.
If you’re a retailer, and you’re selling product to customers directly, then you’re more at risk than if you run a small hedge fund. Just by the nature of being more exposed to everyday customers, you’re more at risk to reputational damage from those individuals.
I was talking to a client not so long ago, they’d just been appointed to the Board of a significant company and his address was publicly available online. After picking up and reading this research, he became quite concerned that if there was a negative bit of coverage that stemmed from that business, were there any potential security issues around having his address online. Just by being associated with that business and being on the board. So, I think it stretches to much further than reputational risks as well, it stretches to privacy risks too.
Jordan: Two things I want to say to close out. One, is that I can imagine someone listening to this and saying “Look, we’re not in a public-facing industry. We don’t deal with the public. So, it doesn’t matter for us”.
But everyone has employees, everyone has suppliers, and everyone has customers of some form, even if it’s b2b. And if the supplier is disenfranchised, rightly or wrongly, this research shows that 80% of them will try to express that anger publicly. So, how are you dealing with that?
The last little thing I wanted to express was around young people. We also cut this research data by age. And I think there’s a sense that if you’re 18 to 25 and you sit in your bedroom, you don’t really do much, you play video games, then you’re not really a risk to a CEO or an executive - wrong. Completely the opposite way round.
The younger you are, the more likely you are to hit social media. The younger you are, the more likely you are to try to politicise a campaign against an individual. And the results are shocking, really shocking. It surprised me, 25% or one in four young people would seek to attend a protest against an individual - that is really, really high. I mean, the stat for older people was around 6 or 9%.
One in four young people are motivated enough to attack the moral or ethical credentials of an executive or motivated enough to attend a protest. So, don’t dismiss young people as a class of people who you don’t really worry about or aren’t concerned about. Take them very seriously and think about how young people, with perhaps different perceptions and ways of seeing the world, might misperceive your actions.