Offence and defence in powerful digital age

Raymond Snoddy examines how social networking websites, such as Twitter, have transformed reputation management for organisations operating in a digital age

National news coverage revealing that millions of O2 mobile customers could have had their numbers disclosed to every website they visited was potentially very damaging for the mobile operator.

Customers were in danger of having their privacy undermined and being exposed to tidal waves of spam.

The response of the 02 chief executive Ronan Dunne was immediate. He went to his Twitter account and wrote in the usual 140 characters: “Apologies to our customers – very sorry – digital confidence is a key priority and we must and will learn from this.”

There was also a link to a statement detailing what had gone wrong and what was being done to make sure that the glitch wouldn’t happen again.

While the 02 boss doesn’t have the millions of followers of, say, Lady Gaga, (26,792, 496 and counting), Mr Dunne got his message out there on his terms on the day the potential crisis blew up.

Rather than have your message misquoted or taken out of context, you have a way of communicating what you want to say directly

He has said of Twitter: “The idea of my tweets from @ronandunneo2 is to give the inside track on life as a CEO, giving my views, opinions and experiences from the front line of digital services. It should add to public understanding of what we do, why we do it and how we do it.”

For Tony Wang, general manager of Twitter in the UK, (where the social networking site has more than ten million users), it is a classic example of how a chief executive should use Twitter: to extend the brand and, where necessary, protect that brand’s reputation.

“Rather than have your message misquoted or taken out of context, you have a way of communicating what you want to say directly,” says Mr Wang.

Mr Dunne isn’t the only chief executive to embrace Twitter. Anyone can read the personal and corporate thoughts of everyone from Jack Welch, the former boss of GE, to Steve Case, the founder of AOL, and Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame.

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, uses the social networking site to personify his brand and share thoughts garnered from a life spent building a business. “4 new health clubs in 4 countries in 1 day! Great achievement by all at Virgin Active, keeping the world healthy,” Sir Richard tweeted earlier this month.

Even News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch, aged 81, has caught on to Twitter. “He recognises the power of being able to share his message on a very open information network,” says Mr Wang, who was management counsel at Google before working in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on the revenue, business development, product and international teams. “You have somebody who has been in the media his whole career, but has never had a direct communication channel before. Now he does.”

Mr Murdoch has used Twitter to make his position clear on everything from the organisational weaknesses of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, (“When is Romney going to look like a challenger? Seems to play everything safe, make no news except burn of Hispanics”), to the Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise split, (“Watch Katie Holmes and Scientology story develop. Something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people”), and the Leveson Inquiry, set up to examine the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World.

“I stand by every word I said at Leveson,” Mr Murdoch tweeted defiantly last month.

He also revealed his thoughts about the British establishment following the departure of Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, who resigned in the furore over the inter-bank interest rate rigging scandal: “Don’t know, but suspect Diamond scapegoat [sic] used by old establishment who did not like energetic competitor.”

Perhaps more than any other executive, Mr Murdoch understands the collective power that can be wielded by social networks when customers and citizens believe there has been an unacceptable breach of trust.

The News of the World faced shocking revelations about widespread phone hacking, particularly the phone of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. But it was the advertiser boycott campaign on Mumsnet and Twitter that is widely believed to have led to the closure of the 168-year-old newspaper, the end of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover bid, and the arrest of several key figures.

Roger Alton, executive editor of The Times, went so far as to say he hoped that middle-class mothers were pleased with the Twitter campaign they organised.

“They’ve done as much as anybody to close this paper [News of the World] and put 200 reporters, photographers, editors and young people just starting their careers out of work,” he said. Twitter, with its “unfiltered”, uncensored news stream, can clearly be a dangerous double-edged weapon so far as brand reputation is concerned.

So, don’t busy chief executives have something better to do with their time than sit riveted to an endless flow of, often inconsequential, gossip? Mr Wang says bosses simply cannot afford to ignore what has almost become a force of nature with around 400 million tweets a day worldwide. “Twitter brings you closer to your consumers,” he says. “You get direct feedback on your business and your product. It will either confirm what your organisation already knows or give you a more diversified perspective.”

What about the negative, possibly inaccurate, unfair comments that can legitimately be transmitted on Twitter? Those are going to be there whether you stay away from social media or not. Twitter is not going to go away: the company recently announced that it plans to continue expanding and will be taking its commercial activities, such as its ads, which encourage users to subscribe to a company’s feed by recommending its tweets to users, to 50 new markets in Latin America, including Brazil, and Western Europe.

“If anyone says they are too busy to be on Twitter, it demonstrates that their understanding of it is very nascent. It’s a really quick and easy way to find out what is going on in the world, and what people are talking about in your community,” Mr Wang argues. “Such an open and unfiltered platform is a very powerful way of getting your message out.”