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Reputation, Risk, and the Digital Domain

Egyptian Women Harassed on International Women’s Day 2011

Oscar Wilde once famously proclaimed, “One can survive everything, nowadays, except death, and live down everything except a good reputation.”

It goes without saying that at least once, if not several times in our lives, we have all experienced the negative backlash a spiteful rumor or an embarrassing truth can have, but it is often how we handle these imbroglios that truly define our reputations.

In 1997, according to Measures That Matter, The Center for Business Innovation (CBI), and Cap Gemini/Ernst & Young, about 35% of investment decisions were based on factors such as reputation and image. Today, this percentage is considerably higher with the activity and immediacy of Facebook and Twitter.

In addition, Compliance Week also notes that, “Reputation risk is viewed by the majority of executives and investors as the most significant threat posed to a company’s global business operations today and [executives] find it harder to recover from a reputation failure than to build and maintain reputation.”

In fact, it takes approximately 3.5 years for a company to recover from a reputation failure.

Furthermore, though existing on a much larger, ethno-religious scale, a country is also a brand and nations need not be looked at much differently in terms of recovering from the nasty blow of a few bad presidents (or dictators).

With this in mind, when looking at a country’s image (PR, marketing, branding), identity (defining attributes and core values), and reputation (the perception of the country by the public, local communities, and stakeholders), social media has undoubtedly leveled (or distorted) the playing field. We are now able to count social media and bloggers as the emergent 5th Estate of Influence. Thus, examining both positive and negative country characteristics and how social media has helped or hindered them is of the utmost importance when considering direct foreign investment and risk mitigation for a nation.

Country Specific Case Studies

Japanese Tsunami Victims Wait Calmly (EPA/Franck Robichon)

Japanese Tsunami Victims Wait Patiently for Food (EPA/Franck Robichon)

1) Japan’s Calm Amid the Storm: The Japanese Don’t Loot

The news of the recent tsumani in Japan brought shockwaves throughout the digital domain. With video that horrified, social networks were flooded with appeals to donate to the Red Cross. Amid almost apocalyptic imagery, another narrative began to emerge on Facebook and traditional media blogs. Surprisingly, this narrative reflected a population in awe for another reason entirely. As blogs by Ed West of The Telegraph and CNN’s Jack Cafferty pointed out, the Japanese were not looting as we commonly saw during Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. In short, there were virtually no violent outbursts.

What bloggers and news anchors noted was a culture – and a people which put their community first. Images showed Japanese – young and old – waiting patiently in line for food and water. What did this narrative tell us about Japan? It told us that, although they could be met with unexpected hardship, they were also incredibly caring and patient. We forgot everything we’d ever heard about the brutality of the Yakuza or the fact that Japan is consistently under fire for recklessly killing dolphins and whales. When tragedy struck, instead, we envisioned a noble people who rose above tragic circumstances.

This also reminded us that, in addition to traditional media blogs serving as primary sources of all news sharing among social networks, when we highlight the positive attributes of a nation’s culture, we inevitably minimize the negative.

2) Egypt’s Revolution: Is Not a Revolution Until It’s Women are Free

The revolution in Egypt brought songs of freedom and promises of democracy to a region mired in dictatorial totalitarian regimes. Through Twitter and Facebook, we saw the majority of the outside world rejoice, while other individuals across social networks remained skeptical about who might assume power next.

Social networking was certainly a key factor in helping to overthrow Mubarak with individuals and groups active on Facebook pages like the We Are All Khaled Said Tribute page for a man who was beaten to death by Egyptian police for blogging, or Esraa Abdel Fatah, who earned the nickname Facebook Girl when she organized a nationwide strike through her page in 2008.

However, in a country that made it exceedingly dangerous to organize on a massive scale, it should not be forgotten that there was also a great deal of offline grassroots activity to organize the protest. All of this brought hope to others living under dictatorial regimes throughout the region and we soon saw Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain follow suit. However, we also saw social media networks reflect the less optimistic side of the story.

This side wasn’t solely about democracy, but about the religious extremists that clutched to control like a pitbull to a baby. Not everyone wanted to relinquish the power that they felt was fleeting. On March 8th, 2011, Egyptian women, tired of continuous sexual harassment,rallied for their rights on International Women’s Day only to be sexually attacked by throngs of men and told they were going against Islam (The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights states that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt have reported exposure to sexual harassment).

This jarring news demonstrated that, although democratic movements can inspire hope, the reputation of a country cannot be changed overnight. If a corporation’s reputation takes three to four years to see improvement in the sharp eye of the 4th Estate, so, too, does a country’s reputation in the sharp hand of the 5th.

Democracy, like reputation, is an ever-evolving process and no man or country is free from criticism, until, of course, their women are free.

Why?

Because individuals in other nations will almost certainly take note and dutifully point this out (again and again) for every other man and woman to read on Facebook, Twitter, Orkut, LiveJournal, or MySpace.

With these examples in mind, here are two key takeaways when attempting to mitigate reputational risks both online and offline.

Grassroots Activism - Los Angeles, California

Grassroots Activism - Los Angeles, California

1.Engage, Empower, and Inspire Your Grassroots Community.

All too often countries think that they can do much of the reputation clean up themselves. They put their ministers, diplomats, or undersecretaries to work, but they often miss another very important element when it comes to making solid change: engaging and empowering grassroots influencers both online and offline.

Whether those influencers are key bloggers, passionate parents, business leaders, NGO’s or activists, the revolutions in Egypt showed us one very powerful thing.

Civil society must be engaged in order to change online perception and make lasting change.

Similarly, Japan’s strong sense of community showed us that when it comes to tragedy and hardship if community is valued above and beyond the needs of the individual there is greater prosperity, social cohesion and safety.

2.Compliance to International Human Rights Standards Translates to a Nation’s Positive Brand Image – A Positive Brand Image Translates to Direct Foreign Investment.

As Marshall McLuhan famously elucidated, we are now, more than ever, living in a global village.A ripple in Asia can be felt as far away as California.Like a cold or its cure, freedom, too, is contagious and, with the advent of instantaneous social media and the space it holds as the new public sphere, direct foreign investment is proportional to a nation’s stance on corruption and human rights.

Just as companies who comply with environmental standards and initiate legitimate CSR campaigns witness increased profits and market share, countries that prioritize the freedom and security of their citizens will also discover that there are numbers (ie. dollars) attached to safety.

As Robert Banton and Shannon Lindsay Banton of University of Memphis posit, Specifically, respect for human rights facilitates a more efficient, productive, skilled, and engaged society that makes a country a more attractive host for FDI. Various factors have been cited that suggest an importance of human rights conditions to foreign investors.Among these are increased public awareness of human rights abuse, greater effectiveness of activists via the internet, an increasing need for well-trained labor, and a desire for access to new markets (Spar 1999). Arguably, respect for human rights creates an environment conducive to the development of human capital, with such countries generally more open, accountable, and economically efficient.


See Michael L. Barnett, John M. Jermier, and Barbara A. Lafferty, Corporate Reputation: The Definitional Landscape, Corporate Reputation Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2006, pp. 26-38

Published by

Layla Revis

VP - Digital Influence Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Layla Revis began her career in the Hollywood trenches at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Warner Brothers Studios. She has served as a Vice-President at Hollywood-based entertainment marketing agencies specializing in feature film and television and has written and conceptualized advertising campaigns for high-profile clients including: E! Entertainment, Discovery Networks, Miramax, and Sony. As a journalist for more than ten years, she has also covered media, marketing, and emerging trends in entertainment and tourism as a Columnist and Contributing Editor at several publications including: Los Angeles Confidential Magazine, GenArt, Teen Vogue, Town + Country, and Surface Magazine. In 2007, she founded two online travel blogs, JauntMagazine.com and Eco-Adventurer.com, to cover luxury travel and stylish, eco-friendly goods for the modern adventurer. Most recently, she led grassroots social media marketing initiatives in the United Kingdom for the non-profit sector as NGO’s transitioned from traditional marketing to the social media space. She brings her understanding and passion for media and marketing to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide because she believes that “innovation is the last refuge of the revolutionary.” Revis was awarded a Distinction from The London School of Economics where she achieved a Master’s of Science in Media and Development and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in English Literature.

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