Nothing will ever be the same again. The global scandal surrounding the leaking of the so-called “Panama Papers” –the subject of an upcoming Hollywood film to be produced by American director Steven Soderbergh- has completely shattered expectations of confidentiality and privacy by both companies and individuals alike.
Reputations are now exposed to greater risk than ever before.
Scenarios once hard to imagine now are possible – and even probable. Information that was supposedly confidential and absolutely inviolable now is made public.
Efforts in several countries to do away with bank secrecy and tear down the barriers of privacy show that we live in a new era, in a hyper-connected world that is in permanent update mode and governed by four forces that affect everything we do: Velocity -because of the need to react quickly-; Participation –because we all have an active role to play-; Social Conscience –because self-interest no longer works; and Transparency –because, as the Panama case has demonstrated, privacy is no longer possible.
Nowadays everything can become public and create a crisis of epic proportions at an exponential pace. Indeed, the level of transparency and the speed with which information travels is such that even if we do everything right and act within the law we can be convicted in the court of public opinion.
Consider for instance the recent scandal in which WikiLeaks posted more than 20,000 e-mails and attachments sent or received by senior Democratic National Committee officials. These leaks confirmed the suspicions of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who believed the party was favoring Hillary Clinton, and led to the resignation of the DNC’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
And then there’s the case of the Panama Papers, the 11 million files leaked from the Mossack Fonseca law firm. The client list that was released is indiscriminate and leaves no room for shades of gray. Many of those clients were business people with legal offshore companies used for completely legal purposes. That’s all immaterial. Everyone is automatically suspect. What’s more, their family members have even found themselves caught up in something they knew nothing about.
And these are not the only risks we face in today’s world. Due to the speed of information and the need for participation to stay relevant, we are continually exposed to unprecedented situations. And even events that initially seem positive can carry the potential for crisis. Just ask the U.S. seafood chain Red Lobster.
During this year’s Super Bowl, pop star Beyoncé performed a song that mentioned Red Lobster. The chain saw its sales spike 33 percent and became a trending topic on Twitter for the first time. Looking to quickly ride that wave, the company launched a marketing campaign featuring a girl’s face. But in its haste, the company failed to take an important detail into consideration: the song’s lyrics said a man had to be good in bed to earn a trip to Red Lobster. And so a situation that had begun well for Red Lobster ended very badly due to the company’s impromptu and rash handling of that opportunity.
So then how do we conduct reputation management when unexpected situations arise. The golden rule is to play it safe and be prepared, but today the meaning of preparation has changed and now requires us to:
1. Be completely transparent. Identifying unforeseen vulnerabilities and scenarios requires us to first take a hard look in the mirror and evaluate not only the facts but also appearances and what could be distorted or misrepresented.
2. Work through every possible scenario and have a complete and up-to-date inventory of all the information that could be used to clarify matters or taken into consideration. When a crisis occurs, there’s no time to compile databases.
3. Create messages centered on a common interest. Finding convergences is important in motivating primary stakeholders to work together to pursue a shared purpose. It’s not my interest and it’s not your interest, but rather one we both share.
4. Step up to Monitoring 3.0. Due to the sheer quantity of existing sources of information, a more sophisticated level of monitoring is required. We need a dashboard that includes and displays social networks, digital platforms, traditional media, and off-line channels on a single platform.
5. Conduct simulations. Simulations were never as important as they are today because crisis situations are increasingly frequent. Possessing these skills is part of the new “business as usual.”
Crises don’t announce their arrival; they simply happen. And they’re now veritable tsunamis that we must be prepared to face with speed, participation, transparency, and social awareness. In other words, with an approach in keeping with this new era.
About the Author:
María Pis-Dudot is a senior vice president for the Newlink consulting firm who specializes in reputation and crisis management for individuals, companies, governments, and NGOs. She recently gave a speech on this topic at the Barna Business School.