Stephen Waddington, #BrandVandals and the future of public relations

Tom Liacas —  July 7, 2014 — Leave a comment

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Waddington over breakfast in London. Currently the Digital and Social Media Director of Ketchum Europe, he is a leading light on the emerging discourse around reputation management and a driving force for change in the PR industry through his role as President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Stephen is also the co-author of two excellent books on the emerging dynamics around online reputation attacks and defensive strategies. For those who have not come across these titles yet, I highly recommend looking up Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals.

To dig deeper into Stephen’s views on social media, reputation and the future of public relations, here is the result of a recent exchange between us:

Why did you feel that Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals were books that needed to be written?

SW: Brand Anarchy describes the huge changes that we have seen in the media and the rise of networks during the last two decades. Describing the situation as anarchy was clearly a bid to sell more copies but it also reflects the reality.

Media in the 21st century is truly democratic and has the potential to reach a massive audience via networks. Organisations have no choice but to engage with their publics in a two-way relationship.

Inevitably when co-author Steve Earl and I talk about the book, people asked ‘how bad can it get?’ That’s the story of #BrandVandals. We tried to subtitle as a handbook for destroying an organisation’s reputation but the publisher didn’t think it was a good idea.

Is the discourse around “reputation” just a new way of saying ‘public relations’ or is there more to it than that?

SW: Reputation and trust is an outcome of good public relations. In my view, our future as practitioners lies in helping organisations communicate with their publics and foster a genuine dialogue.

There is a secondary issue: Public relations shouldn’t be siloed as a department within an organisation. It should be part of every operational area of a business and be represented at the highest level of an organisation.

This is the so-called shift to social business and it is incredibly exciting for communicators working in progressive organisations.

What is currently preventing the disciplines of corporate communications and public relations from managing reputation properly?

SW: Many organisations still have a 20th century industrial mindset based on a command and control model of communication. Most likely, these are the organisations that are being criticised day-in day-out on networks such as Twitter.

Social media is undoubtedly an awakening but for the majority of organisations it has been bolted onto existing communication or marketing programmes as a new channel whereas it demands a fundamental rethink.

Organisations have to shift from broadcast to two-way communication. Increasingly, I think that it is going to take at least a generation.

What kinds of new talents and human skills are required in the age of ‘reputation management’?

SW: The workflow of traditional public relations activity, based on the press release, is more than 100 years old.

We’re developing new competency frameworks to respond the changes in workflow. Skills such as research, data analytics, content development and community management are critical to our future.

In many ways we are returning to our roots of public engagement. In the future we’ll seek to develop understanding of human behaviour and seek the skills of anthropologists and psychologists.

Again, here are links to Stephen’s books, well worth the purchase!


Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

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An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.