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What the HSBC climate furore teaches us about modern-day corporate reputation management

‘Out-hyperbole the next guy’ – not a diatribe on social media marketing, but Stuart Kirk, global head of responsible investments at HSBC Asset Management, discussing central banker/policymaker responses to the financial risk of climate change, back in 2022. 

His colleagues didn’t concur that “climate change is not a financial risk that we need to worry about”, and Stuart Kirk, global head of responsible investments at HSBC’s Asset Management unit, was suspended, since resigning – with public criticism from senior colleagues including HSBC group chief executive Noel Quinn.

Now, rather than discuss purpose, authenticity and the like, what caught the eye was the use of LinkedIn. Senior HSBC colleagues issued their critiques via their own LinkedIn profiles, press office directed media enquiries to said posts, and journalists quoted them.

A phone used for corporate reputation management digitally

Regardless of how HSBC got there, this was an emphatic, swift and definitive closing-down of the story. Corporate Twitter profiles have historically been used in this way; to see co-ordinated use of senior execs’ LinkedIn profiles to respond, over a weekend, is rare.

But it reflects something important: are your leaders set up to win in the new frontiers of reputation management – digitally? Could you get statements out on their LinkedIn over a weekend? Do they have rounded profiles, with relevant audiences following them at scale? Are you able to amplify this effectively with paid and owned approaches?

LinkedIn’s use in this case for rebuttal/ reputation management touches on three core trends within corporate digital identity.

  1. LinkedIn as a core platform for ESG/reputation-sensitive topics with key stakeholders and audiences – because it’s relatively firewalled from activist/consumer engagement, it allows for more nuanced peer discussions impossible on Twitter.

  2. The role of individual leaders driving reputation management digitally, rather than their corporate entities. They outperform through algorithmic and authenticity-led factors on values-led issues.

  3. Journalist use of LinkedIn for research/newsgathering, company insight and sourcing stories – again taking the role Twitter historically held.

What matters is doing the digital hard yards with leaders before the moment that reputation truth strikes.

The key steps to consider to be able to move effectively:
  • Executive profiles and identities – more than just the chief executive, it should consider senior teams more generally, potentially covering specific mapped areas.

  • Audience-building so the right people are already there and engaged.

  • Mobilise the wider employee base – internal can be external in managing the message.

  • Be clear on the interplay between brand and demand activity, given LinkedIn has historically been a sales-led platform: there is positive synergy.

There are constants in reputation management – the importance of message and time. Where the world has changed is in how you connect and distribute your views and responses, and the need for individuals, not corporates, to connect with your audiences.

The shift to digital as the default, LinkedIn as the lead, people as the principle will rapidly be the new norm in corporate reputation.

NB Originally written by Alex Pearmain for PR week here


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