The Risks of Executive Selfies and Corporate Reputation
“Identity will be the most valuable commodity for citizens in the future, and it will exist primarily online.”
Reputation is commonly defined as “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something”. This definition is interesting in that it implies reputation is based on perception and not fact. Everyday we are inundated with news headlines of how a company or an individual has loss their reputation (here the assumption is that the lost reputation was a good one) and the negative impact that loss has had on the company and/or individual. How then do you protect reputation if reputation is someone else’s beliefs or opinions? We live in a society where everyone is considered worthy of having their own opinions although we do not need to all agree with it. So why are we so concerned that the opinions they have of our company, its products and/or services, or of us are positive? Perhaps because in the corporate world, according to a recent IBM study on representational risk, a “strong reputation generates stakeholder trust.” Add to this the knowledge that in today’s digital environment reputation is a fragile thing. As Warren Buffet states: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
The first impression of an executive and therefore sometimes the company’s brand can be based on a photo. Most executives will have professionally taken company-approved photographs for their “official” online profiles. What about for their personal accounts? It is interesting to note the phenomenon of online “selfies” – portraits taken of oneself by oneself by turning the camera lens around to face you. A recent New York Times article, My Selfie, Myself, by Jenna Wortham examined why these images are more than just the work of vain individuals. Clive Thompson, a technology writer, is quoted in the article. “People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world. Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are, and what you look like.” But are these the images of the executive the company wants out there?
Social media platforms have added not only a way to share these photos and other content, but other technology, such as Facebook’s facial recognition, is able to automatically identify individuals in the photos. It is offered as a tool to assist users in captioning their photos, but stalkers can use this tool to identify and locate a potential “executive” target.
Executives may also choose a graphic or cartoonish visual representation. Or the executive may be taking part in a virtual environment that requires the adoption of an avatar, which is a graphical representation of the executive. These avatars are usually also 3-dimensional. The choices an executive uses to dress his or her avatar may become the basis for the public’s opinion about the executive and therefore about the company. One best practice being adopted by some companies who permit the use of avatars for executives (and employees) is instituting an avatar dress code to reduce the risk of negative public opinion.
In online communities and forums the avatar may be a simple 2-dimensional icon or even the company’s logo. This last option, the use of a company’s logo, can have legal and other negative consequences for the corporation as it can be seen as a company endorsement of the executive’s actions in the online forums, or that the executive is representing the company in these forums and therefore the company would be liable for the executive’s actions.
The preceding was excerpted from the author’s book, “Managing Online Risks: Apps, Mobile, and Social Media Security” available on Amazon.com.
 Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman, The New Digital Age (April 2013)