Read Ronny Aoun's Interview With Reputation Communications: How to Avoid Being the Next Jeopardy Crisis

Reputation Communications
Reputation Communications
Interviews with experts
Read Ronny Aoun's Interview With Reputation Communications: How to Avoid Being the Next Jeopardy Crisis

The popular TV program Jeopardy recently found itself in a crisis after selecting long-time producer Mike Richards as the late Alex Trebek’s replacement without fully vetting him.

Sony Pictures Entertainment apparently failed to conduct a deep-dive audit of Richards’ social media posts, podcast and other appearances, which, reporter Claire McNear discovered, had plenty of the type of red flags virtually all due diligence agencies now look for.

Jeopardy isn’t alone in this omission. Google landed in the same position this year when the Washington Free Beacon discovered an antisemitic blog post written in 2007 by Kamau Bobb, its global diversity lead. Google quickly reassigned Bobb from the diversity team, but the revelation caused offense to many of Google’s employees. In this case, as in the case of Sony Entertainment’s evaluation of Richards, a review of the prospective employee’s past statements would have uncovered the offensive material and avoided the reputational damage.

Thousands of organizations now routinely conduct deep-dive background checks that focus on blogposts, social media posts and other types of commentary that can be found online by anyone…with some digging. But thousands don’t. That can lead to a major reputational crisis.

Valital Technologies is a Canadian-based company, helping organizations manage reputation risks. With Valital’s AI-powered platform, organizations can stay ahead of unexpected reputation risks by monitoring and analyzing adverse online news on potential and current business stakeholders. Valital believes organizations need to “verify, then trust” in order to make better, more confident decisions about the people with whom they choose to do business.  We checked in with Ronny Aoun, Valital founder and CEO (shown below), to get the latest on how AI is being used to vet clients, business partners, third-party service providers or any individual a business is hoping to work with.

Ronny Aoun

Q: Why do you think companies like Sony Pictures Entertainment fail to conduct due diligence for such high-profile hires?

RA: Many executives take people’s track records, experience and reputation for granted, especially if they’re star performers or well known within an industry. In the case of Jeopardy, Mike Richards had already proven himself as an executive producer for two well-loved game shows: The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. There’s a certain level of complacency involved. You often see this in more benign situations, such as in the promotion of a long-time employee into a new, more high-profile role. Some managers subscribe to a one-and-done approach in that instance; that is, if the person has been vetted once before — even if it was years ago— that person is OK. That’s a very naive and potentially brand-damaging way of thinking, as Sony found with Mike Richards.  

Q: Have you helped companies that have had such crises?

RA:  We work with organizations that have run into things like this at one point or another. Luckily, most are never as high-profile as the Jeopardy case. The reason we exist is to help these organizations make better, more confident decisions about who they choose to do business with. Our job is to help them avoid such situations. We don’t give them advice on who to engage with; we make no kind of assessment or evaluation. All the decision-making is in their hands. What we do is provide them with information that will give them a fuller picture of the individual stakeholder.

Q: Do most HR and legal departments of major organizations understand the ways AI are now being used by agencies like Valital? If not, why don’t they?

RA: Based on our experience, people are generally aware of AI and the fact that it can be a gamechanger in so many ways. They don’t necessarily understand the full extent of one powerful aspect of AI, which is Natural Language Processing or NLP. NLP is a form of AI that enables computers to extract language from unstructured text. In Valital’s case, our AI learns human language and uses content and context to perform real-time search and pulse analysis of online media, blogs and tweets, flagging misconducts related to universally recognized misbehaviours: discrimination, fraud, harassment, violence and abuses. We also find that many organizations, even ones that are large and extremely profitable, are still highly reliant on doing adverse news monitoring manually.  They don’t quite appreciate just how much more efficient an intelligent platform can be. They will get far more information, more quickly and consistently. When people are performing manual searches, you will find that in the same team, one person might stop at page 2 of his search engine results page, while another goes further. NLP eliminates the inefficiencies, freeing up resources to focus on more high value work within their organizations.

Q: How is your platform set up to use AI to vet assigned individuals…and do they know they are being vetted?

RA: First, it’s important to note that we see Valital as part of an organization’s integrated risk management efforts. It’s not intended to be the only tool in a team’s arsenal. Many organizations do standard background checks on individuals via databases. Databases are important and will continue to be so. Valital adds another layer to this by scouring the internet for fast-moving, dynamic open-source intelligence (OSINT) to flag universally recognized misconducts.

Valital is a Saas-based platform, requiring virtually no implementation. An organization determines how many validations they need to perform annually as part of their KYC process or third-party verification process, for example. There are no unwieldy and expensive licensing agreements to adhere to, and we encourage organizations to use the platform across the organization’s functions that will benefit from being able to better assess potential business relationships. Because the AI simply gathers and categorizes publicly available information, there’s no concern about breaching people’s privacy. Our AI is simply able to find more information faster, better and more efficiently than a human can.

Q: What advice do you have for executives responsible for determining whether a new business relationship is worth pursuing?

RA: Here’s the truth: Reputation can either drive value or destroy it. It’s Warren Buffet who says it best, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Effectively managing reputation risk is not an option; it’s an imperative. And that means deploying real-time information and processes by using the right tools and technologies that will build reputational resiliency across the organization. This means investing in rigorous due diligence, especially around these nuanced misconducts that we monitor for.

Behaviour that used to be tolerated in the past is often not acceptable today, and you want to have access to all the publicly available information about an individual before you decide. That’s why we’re constantly talking about verifying first, then trusting. The old adage of “trust, but verify,” doesn’t cut it in today’s world, because trusting the wrong business stakeholder can damage brands, sink stock prices, erode shareholder value and make organizations non-compliant with regulators, thereby incurring hefty penalties. It pays to do proper due diligence, and Valital helps organizations do it better.

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