The debacle that enveloped Boris Johnson and his embattled Tory party is a perfect illustration of the headline point I make in presentations on Reputation Management: it is not just for celebrities.
To be fair, this is an understandable misconception as, in the old days of ‘media litigation’ you would mostly act for celebrities in combating the traditional print and broadcast media, more often than not the tabloids, who were invariably invading their privacy or peddling untruths.
The sheer scope, accessibility and penetrative ability of the internet changed all that. Now virtually anyone, if they are relatively tech savvy, can orchestrate wide-ranging and anonymous online smear campaigns that are targeted and relentless, and can gain enough traction to destroy established brands and reputations. As Warren Buffett famously said, "it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to destroy it." These campaigns are launched via seemingly scattergun but focused social media trolling and tagging, fake news and ‘JohnSmithIsAFraudster.com’ type ‘attack’ websites. And all from the protective comfort of an anonymous username channelled through a VPN or ProtonMail.
And it is not just the lone wolf with an axe to grind. In the corporate and political sphere, bad players, stakeholders, competitors or enemies can pay shadowy hackers and unscrupulous hacks to conduct these online smear and fake news campaigns, often to derail a merger or take a share price on a nose-dive. And all for some benefit to the perpetrator. There has even been some unconfirmed reports of the Russian state using such ‘dark PR’ techniques to promote their war in Ukraine with beneficial but contrived propaganda.
And this is not an entirely new phenomena. Just one that is evolving rapidly. For example, in 2011 Facebook were caught red-handed, anonymously briefing journalists to plant damaging stories attacking the robustness of Google’s privacy features. The difference now is that reputation management lawyers have to work with not only PR’s, but also intel and cyber professionals to uncover the anonymous culprits, so that their head is above the parapet to commence more traditional legal action. This can involve cyber ‘deep-dive’ snooping by ex-GCHQ boffins but also sending ex-Special Forces operatives to foreign lands to undertake more ‘boots on the ground’ type investigations. Even the most fastidious anonymous attackers will leave breadcrumbs that can be followed. Legal causes of action have now evolved from traditional libel and breach of privacy or confidence proceedings, to human rights and data protection law.
So what was the preserve of celebrities now affects all and sundry – from large corporates to SME’s, regulators, NGO’s, charities: and even governments and Prime Ministers. For example, it is debatable whether Boris Johnson was provided with sage reputation management advice during the carousal of scandals he faced. His defence to the Chris Pincher sexual harassment storm that he ‘forgot’ about previous briefings on this serious issue (while subsequently promoting him to a position of power), certainly does not reflect well from a reputation perspective. His forced resignation serves as a sobering denouement to future PMs. There have also been some unsavoury rumours online about Boris Johnson’s alleged personal life. If true, it would have been further fuel to the crisis he was facing. These rumours were not reported in the mainstream media. It is possible that Boris got his ‘crisis response’ lawyers and PR’s on the job quickly to send out ‘on notice’ pre-action legal letters, or even secure injunctions to block publication, all likely based on privacy or defamation rights.
Of course, it is debatable whether the publication of such personal information would have a ‘public interest’ defence, but weaponised legal letters or injunctions could serve as a temporary dam. Indeed, there are entirely necessary public debates on the nefarious use of such means to stifle journalism on important issues of public interest, such as the use of ‘SLAPPS’ (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) by powerful people to conceal misconduct. However, the law of privacy does allow you to choose which sensitive matters relating to your personal life you wish to remain private, and I think that is something we can all welcome in a progressive, yet increasingly expository and online world such as ours. Equally, abuse of such laws must be stamped-out.
So now ‘reputation management’ is truly a mantle for all seasons. The internet, fuelled by smartphones, has become the Wild West and seemingly genuine threats can appear from anyone, anywhere, in any season.