Philippe Spanghero and Eric Walter both came under attack on the social networks. Each of them decided to launch himself directly into the debate and create a real dialogue with his online detractors.

Managing a company’s reputation on the social networks has become a basic element in any well-thought-out communication strategy, but what about when corporate image affects the reputation of an individual person? This was the question put to Philippe Spanghero, French rugby player turned businessman and Eric Walter, Secretary General of Hadopi* at the Reputation War conference which took place in Paris on 17 January. Both men’s personal reputations were directly impacted by crises in the media. Unjustly faced with the fallout from the horse meat scandal, Mr Spanghero used the social networks to disassociate his name from the criticisms, while Mr Walter – who was caught up in the general outcry by Internet users against the Hadopi law – managed to make the public aware that he had a separate identity from the government body for which he worked. The members of the Spanghero family had not worked at the company which bears their name for many years, but the explosion of the Spanghero horse meat scandal took a direct swipe at the family’s reputation. To respond to these personal accusations and protect the family’s reputation, Philippe Spanghero decided to go on to the social networks. Meanwhile over at Hadopi, Eric Walter had endeavoured, from the moment he was appointed, to dialogue with a community of Internet users who were, to say the least, hostile.

From corporate identity to personal identity

Although both men had a certain degree of familiarity with social networks, they rapidly found themselves exposed to strong reactions on the Internet. The anonymity and immediacy of the digital channels allowed online commentators to indulge in an outpouring of emotion which, in these controversial and very sensitive situations, triggered a wave of gratuitous violence. However, both Philippe Spanghero and Eric Walter made up their minds to use the social networks, particularly Twitter, to get their points across. Spanghero told the Reputation War audience of his fear that, as the social networks had rapidly become part and parcel of the overall media coverage, he would find himself deprived of a voice in the matter. Eric Walter took the same approach. “I went on to the social networks to explain on my own behalf how the Hadopi agency worked, and found myself confronted by a wave of hostility which took a while to subside,” he recalls. This ‘initiation ceremony into the social networks’, as he humorously describes it, can however be the main drawback. Attempts to communicate at the personal level, especially when it comes to one’s reputation, can get blocked. Unlike the traditional media, social networks demand and offer constant unmediated interaction, with more direct appeal to the general public. This is what makes the exercise stressful and time-consuming.

Both target and partner in dialogue

These cases are of great interest because, in spite of everything, the two men’s actions turned out very successfully.  While going on to the social networks is a difficult step as it opens the door to personal attacks, it is nonetheless the personal aspect of the message that gives a person credibility and wins recognition from the online commentators. Philippe Spanghero told the conference how astonished he was to see a protective micro-community rapidly form around the former rugby player, which allowed him to concentrate on the facts of the case rather than getting bogged down in fruitless polemic. “I was surprised at the impact of our first tweet, which was retweeted 400 times, especially the way that the ‘follower’ system enabled our information to progress from the social networks to the traditional media,” he underlines. In the same vein, Eric Walter, bound by restrictions on public servants’ freedom of expression, ended up creating a personal account separate from the Hadopi account, and is quick to admit that he learned a lot from doing so. “I was able to start communicating and, little by little, gained, if not approval, at least some respect from my most aggressive detractors, so the dialogue became more progressive,” he explained, adding: “The result of my personal online communication was that my understanding of the issues changed, and we altered our approach at Hadopi. We made some changes to our way of working and my colleagues changed their habits too. Now they don’t think twice about tweeting and getting personally involved in a topic.”

* The French government agency created to administer the ‘Hadopi’ law, which promotes the distribution and protection of creative works on the Internet.

  Eric Walter Philippe Spanghero
By Quentin Capelle