Organisations: An algorithm away from irrelevance


Whether it’s managing your reputation or selling products, on the internet all organisations play to algorithms. A set of online instructions that governs whether your content will be seen. As regulatory pressures bring about change for social networks, you may need to work harder to have the same impact.

“Where are you? Are you safe?” The tone of panic in my wife’s iMessage was unmistakable – and palpable. We have an open relationship (technologically speaking, that is). We keep track of each other through our devices. And, apparently, my Apple Watch was in Brockwell Park in South East London whilst my iPhone was in Tulse Hill, several miles away. Commuting had somehow interfered with my GPS signal. 

As Google’s former-CEO Eric Schmidt once put it, Google’s policy on privacy was to “get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”. In the case of our martial relationship, being able to locate each other in a second via GPS does not represent the creepy line; it’s a source of comfort and security. And that happens to be a function of the nature of privacy: It’s contextual in spirit, and by definition does not take a particular stance.

This makes it complicated when it comes to governance. Global public awareness of data privacy remains top-of-mind following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Privacy has transcended the law books and has turned into a mainstream news story.

Social networks and the privacy debate

“Data is the new oil” has become a tired expression. But while this platitude is taken as an attribute of companies with a technological leaning, the reality is that all companies are now data companies. And the data sources extend well beyond the internet or social media: When you’re handling an old-fashioned print business card, it contains a contact’s personal information. 

Social networks, however, have established a new standard, one that’s symbolic of a reality in which a person is reduced to strings of code. Filtered and aggregated by third-party vendors that gather research, the data is then used for targeted advertising. Perhaps this is why, when it comes to privacy, that social networks have become so central to the privacy debate. Of course, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was also a clear catalyst.

The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport recently published the Online Harms White Paper,which sets out plans for new laws or changes to current laws governing behaviour online. The paper revealed how social networks are designed to encourage continuous use, including small and seemingly inconsequential features that are extremely influential and addictive. Such elements of “persuasive design” – include “likes”, “comments” and “shares” – become powerful tools for quantifying social validation and for encouraging users to keep using the app or platform for longer. 

Alleviating these perceived pressures could form part of the Government’s response. Already Instagram is running international tests hiding likes.

What this means for corporates

As social networks find their footing to deliver privacy policies that appease regulators and online safety advocates, an online storm is brewing for corporates everywhere. Indeed, if unrest in the social media landscape was represented as a weather report, then the outlook for today would be windy, with a high chance of showers. 

To be blunt: You’re an algorithm away from irrelevance.

“Content” has become a singular go-to word, offering solutions to companies struggling to reach their stakeholders. Whether that involves selling products directly to customers via advertising or using “content marketing” for soft, indirect selling. 

And it’s that living and breathing social-media content that is in the crosshairs of regulators.

That’s the risk for corporates: No matter how engaging your story, a single sudden change may leave your content hidden indefinitely. Social media is the great enabler and the way to directly speak to people without journalist playing gatekeeper. It is a highly targeted approach that offers an innovative solution to investor relations or public affairs. But it also leaves organisations vulnerable to the almighty algorithm.

Take ownership of your brand

Taking ownership of your brand is about control. Tomorrow a social network may introduce a drastic change, such as an update to an algorithm that upweights video content and downgrades audio. A few lines of code may mean your communications budget will no longer last the year.

Invest in the places that matter. Understand how people are using your website. Spend time experimenting with podcasts that your organisation hosts. Create real-world events, virtual events. There are numerous possibilities to ensure your organisations ownsthe content, with social media being the contributory factor.

The greater challenge, however, is managing reputation. Our experience shows that managing reputation is a holistic practice, meaning that all business disciplines with external responsibilities have a duty to manage it – and a role in managing it. You can portray reputation, but perceptions online are a mixture of what people are saying about you.

Taking ownership of your brand will arguably become more complex, particularly as the privacy movement gathers steam and social networks reform to remain relevant.

Society’s reaction influences the contextual definition of privacy. Pay attention to how social networks and other organisations adapt. In turn, adjust your communications program. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself an algorithm away from irrelevance. 

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Michael White

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By Michael White