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Ask the Expert: Associate Director Tom Whitley discusses the future of search and the expansion of online reputation management in the MENA region

April 2023
 by Tom Whitley

Ask the Expert: Associate Director Tom Whitley discusses the future of search and the expansion of online reputation management in the MENA region

April 2023
 By Tom Whitley

Tom is a Associate Director in Digitalis’s Client Services team, where he develops and implements digital strategies for clients to enhance and protect their online profiles from existing or future threats. He spends a few minutes discussing his experience in the digital reputation space, including his recent time in Dubai setting up Digitalis’s new office, and looking ahead at how new developments in online search may have a transformative impact on the industry.

1. Tell us a little about your background, how you came to work at Digitalis, and the particular areas of expertise that you bring to your clients.

I began my career in corporate communications, with a particular focus on financial services, philanthropy and sustainability. I had studied English and History at university, so the power of effective communication had always been very clear to me, but focusing on these particular sectors helped me to hone my understanding and apply my skills to helping businesses in the area of reputation management.

The experience in that environment was invaluable ahead of joining Digitalis. Developing an understanding of, and expertise in, stakeholder relations, crisis communications, brand management and strategic consulting have all contributed to my work at Digitalis, where an understanding of the diverse pressures faced by our clients is required.

Reputation has a major impact on the ability of individuals and companies to operate effectively. The shift from traditional media to digital platforms has left them more vulnerable than ever to unaccountable arbiters of truth, so it is vitally important that their reputation is secured, regardless of which point in the corporate journey they are at.

2. What type of clients do you work with, and how does the Client Services team work with others at Digitalis to help protect them against digital risk?

We work with a broad range of clients, both in terms of sectors and geographies. I have clients from the UK, US, Europe, and MENA, working in sectors from financial services to TMT and heavy industries. We work with governments, companies and individuals, so the exposure to different areas is significant, and is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.

Regardless of how long it has been established or its appetite for publicity, it’s vital that a company or individual’s reputation is protected, particularly in the digital space. The Client Services team’s role is to understand the reputational issues of our clients and provide them with the solutions to protect against existing and future threats. Google results are a shop window for businesses and individuals, so we identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relating to them, helping clients navigate complex digital landscapes and optimise their appearance online.

3. What new and emerging trends and developments are you seeing in the digital space, and do they pose any new threats or challenges?

One major development is AI, which has exploded in popularity even within the last few months. From a search engine perspective, generative AI has already made huge waves – everyone will have read or heard something about Open AI and ChatGPT in the last couple of months, including how it threatens to change the way we interact with search engines. The hype around ChatGPT is so great that it has pushed Google onto the back foot, something that hadn’t happened for a long time. However, what is also clear is that it is not quite a finished product – yet.

AI has been around for many years, helping to herald significant advances in science and medicine. But the biggest change now is the democratisation of access. AI is set to be applied to many everyday digital tools that we use, with the potential to accelerate tasks so exponentially that it is impossible to fully comprehend today the possibilities and changes that will take place tomorrow.

At the dawn of this new technology, it will be interesting to see how it will be controlled. This is a technology that is largely owned, operated, and being rolled out by the private sector, for profit. There are huge questions around how the technology will be applied, who will regulate it, and how this regulation will be achieved and monitored.

The threats posed by AI are limited only by our imagination. We can enjoy AI-generated photos of the Pope in a huge puffer coat, but the same technology has the potential to be used in more dangerous ways. It is not hard to imagine a malevolent actor creating images with serious geopolitical implications, or indeed destroying the carefully-built reputation of an innocent individual. In this context, diligence in ensuring your online profile remains accurate is of greater importance now than ever before.

4. You’ve spent some time recently expanding Digitalis’s footprint in Dubai and the MENA region. How are things developing there, what challenges do clients in the MENA region face, and how is Digitalis helping?

Digitalis has had a presence in the MENA region for several years, working with a number of high-profile clients from across the GCC. Given the importance of the region, it was a natural step to establish a more permanent presence there, so we opened our first international office in Dubai International Financial Centre in January 2023.

While our technology will still be based in London, having on-the-ground capability in the GCC is invaluable for maintaining and developing relationships. It’s one of the most exciting and complex regions in the world in terms of business development, and the economic transformation it has undergone in recent years shows no sign of slowing down.

This rapid economic growth means that the challenges facing clients are often linked to heightened levels of exposure and scrutiny, both internationally and from within the Gulf itself. It is therefore crucial that the solutions we provide help them to present an accurate and fair image, ensuring the continuity of their businesses. The region acts as a major innovation hub on the global stage, often bridging the divide between East and West, so clients need the security of knowing they are protected from digital threats, and their online interests are being accurately and informatively presented across the world.

5. Finally, what steps should we all be taking to be aware of and minimise the risks to our privacy and online reputation posed by the ever-changing online world?

I think the first step is understanding what exists online about you – be that the pervading online narrative, or personal information – and then taking appropriate measures to look after it. So much information can find its way online without our knowledge (often innocently, but sometimes not), and that is where the greatest risk to our privacy lies.

The digital realm as we know it is evolving rapidly, with imminent changes that once seemed far-off, including AI, virtual reality, and the metaverse. While staying ahead of these developments is harder than ever, it’s important to be aware of the trends as they progress, understand their implications, and know the steps you can take to protect yourself against any threats that they pose.

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