Mr. Charlie Pownall, Managing Director of CPC & Associates, a communications & online reputation consultancy, and Chairman of the Communications & Marketing Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, spoke with VET about issues surrounding the management of social media.
With the rapid growth and changes in the internet today, what is the importance of enterprises managing their online reputation?
The internet and social media are now the preferred place for many people to communicate with each other, catch up on news, and research and buy products and services. And this is more true in Asia than in any other region. Research consistently shows that Asians are the most “social” consumers in the world, using review sites, social networks, blogs, and other digital tools not just to browse what’s on offer but to proactively share their experiences with others.
It is therefore not just advisable but essential that organizations understand how the internet and the social web impact their overall reputation, as well as different aspects of it, from the quality of their products and services and the strength of their financial performance, to how they are seen to treat their people and manage their environmental footprint. Getting a good grip on how the outside world sees you and behaves as a result enables you to understand your strengths and gives you insights into how these can be used to your advantage, just as it will help you appreciate your weaknesses, not least the actual and potential risks to your reputation.
As an expert in public communications in Asia-Pacific, how would you evaluate the capacity of Vietnamese enterprises to deal with social media crises and manage their online reputation compared to regional enterprises?
Vietnamese companies have some way to go before they can be confident they are managing their reputations effectively - online or offline. This is partly due to the high degree of political control over the local business and media environments, resulting in State-owned firms feeling they have little need to communicate publicly in a substantive manner, even during times of trouble, and that they are really only accountable to their owners. In some cases the reluctance to engage online can also be ascribed to a fear of the unknown: online word of mouth, in particular, continues to frighten many organizations as it represents a potentially dramatic loss of control of their name and image.
However, as Vietnam’s economy opens up to greater competition and local companies focus more on selling their products abroad they will quickly learn that different rules apply, especially in the West, where the government, investors, customers, and the media expect them to be much more open and accountable. And this means having to handle longer-term issues, one-off incidents, and the occasional crisis in full public view on platforms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
Vietnamese companies should not be unduly concerned. Many Western companies also continue to struggle with the speed with which information, news, and views are flowing and the ease with which people can now make even the most powerful organizations appear defensive or out of touch. And the rules of online protection and defense are steadily becoming clearer.
Many enterprises are using social listening tools to identify and track potential problems and then solve them in traditional ways, not on social channels. Do you still see this an effective way for enterprises to protect their reputation, including online?
While there continues to be a lot of hype around social media, it is important not to underplay the continuing importance of the mainstream media. Given that newspapers and TV news continue to be consumed by influential stakeholders such as government officials and investors, they remain important channels to identify, track, and manage problems, especially in a relatively controlled environment such as Vietnam, or Singapore.
But in certain scenarios, such as a furious customer venting about poor quality products or customer service online, an employee spreading rumors about his boss or colleagues on Facebook, or a data breach, it is generally recognized that if the problem emerges online it should be tackled first and foremost online, because that is where the audience most directly impacted is. By doing this you will appear responsive, caring, and professional, giving you a better chance of containing the issue online and stopping it spreading to the mainstream media.
Is it necessary for enterprises, particularly those in Vietnam that are mostly of small and medium size, to have a separate department for social media issues?
Opening a standalone unit can be a good way to get the ball rolling initially, and to demonstrate commitment to social media internally and to potential recruits and partners. Having a distinct center of excellence can also be very helpful in developing and selling your strategy and approach to social media to management and more broadly to building relationships across the many parts of the enterprise that can benefit from social technologies, including PR, marketing, sales, HR, legal, and product development.
However, there are also dangers to having social media as a separate unit, not least conflicting agendas, lost opportunities, and battles over budgets, leading many organizations over time to embed social media across the organization as widely and deeply as possible, while retaining a small team at the center responsible for developing strategy, tracking progress, training employees, and buying technology. In the end the model varies widely and depends on the company, its culture, its approach to risk and innovation, and where it sees itself going.
Vietnam is integrating further into the world, so what should Vietnamese enterprises do to develop and protect their brands?
The best thing any organization moving into a new market can do is to get to grips with the new political, socioeconomic, and media context in which they will be operating and start building constructive relationships with different kinds of opinion-formers, including local community leaders and journalists. Truly understanding your customers, building a strong, committed local workforce and building meaningful ties with the local community is often the best reputation protection there is.
Mr. Charlie Pownall is also a communications advisor and the author of Managing Online Reputation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He will lead a workshop on Crisis Communications and Social Media at the Sage Brand and Communications Academy in Hanoi on December 15.