A lot has been written on how companies can leverage social media to enhance their corporate reputation, but there is currently little thinking around the emerging topic of reputation management for social media themselves. Online social platforms are a particular breed of business, where one of the reputation pillars - the 'product', i.e. online content - is generated by its users, be they merchants, website owners, or members of the public.
Facing increasing reputation risks such as regulatory scrutiny, media criticism and consumer activism, social media platforms will have to grow and defend a reputation of their own if they want to continue to operate their business unimpeded.
Reputation risks of online platforms
Most user-generated content platforms have already learnt the importance of reputation management the hard way. In the past years, the sector has suffered various attacks, which fall under three categories:
The debate around inappropriate content. Online platforms need to wage a permanent war on illegal or inappropriate content, as any content is likely to be noticed by both traditional and online media, and lead to a reputation crisis. An interesting example is the issue of counterfeits sales on Ebay, which posed a serious threat to the company's licence to operate.
Conversely, online platforms need to be very careful about what they consider inappropriate to avoid accusations of censorship. In several instances, Facebook's extremely strict policy on nudity has attracted flak from its users. For example, the group Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!, has attracted nearly 260,000 members. The complicated arbitrage between what is inappropriate and what isn't still has to rely the company's deep understanding of its user community.
Lifestyle issues. Social media have changed the way we live, which has lead to increased scrutiny from all sides. Researchers and NGOs send warnings about health and addiction, while businesses, concerned about confidentiality and employee productivity, are banning them in the workplace. In addition to these 'sectoral' threats, social media are often held responsible for the conversations happening on the platform, as traditional media and the general public tend to 'blame the messenger'. For instance Facebook and blogging platforms have been said to encourage eating disorders amongst young girls.
Building reputation for online platforms
In this difficult context, and with little or no content of their own, how can online platforms build their corporate reputation?
In the past year, social media have explored some interesting avenues:
- Using data for the greater good. Social media's role is now recognised as crucial in tracking epidemics. Just a few days ago, Twitter has been praised for yielding data that helped authorities manage the cholera outbreak in Haiti, while Google mines its search data on an ongoing basis to monitor flu trends.
- Owning an issue. In the UK, Google has launched the "Good to Know" campaign on internet safety, in partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau, which tells internet users how to choose a strong password, recognise phishing emails, amongst other basic safety tips. Doing so, Google harnesses its activity to a major societal concern, and it positions itself as an authority regarding online security, giving the company a credible vehicle to engage with its stakeholders and telling them how Google is handling personal information.
- Maintaining trust by improving transparency on personal data usage. Important progress has been made in this regard. Facebook made considerable efforts to make it easy for its users to know what type of data they are sharing with whom amongst their friends. However, information on the way personal data will be used for commercial purposes is still fuzzy, basically coming down to one, tautological point: "you are allowing us to use the information we receive about you".
While these initiatives may have reached their objective and delivered some reputation benefits, major online platforms will have to much more if they want to demonstrate a positive societal value, maintain user trust, and preserve their licence to operate.
This means: growing and diversifying their portfolio of initiatives, and getting them more publicised.