“The online risk landscape will change beyond recognition in five years”

Adam Hildreth

Interview with Adam Hildreth, CEO of Crisp, an online safety company based in Leeds, UK.

Hi Adam, what is your background and what is included in your current role at Crisp?

Crisp was inspired by the need for better protection for children online. My first company, Dubit Ltd, was a virtual world and chat room for kids, which I started with a group of school friends, aged 14, during the dot com era.

We built Dubit into a successful digital youth marketing platform and had globally recognized brands advertising with us, but keeping young users safe through content moderation was costing a fortune.

In the early 2000s there were no laws to protect children online, so I worked with the UK Home Secretary and the child protection taskforce to establish laws to protect young users from online grooming.

As the amount of user-generated content that posed a risk to young people and brands was increasing, I left Dubit to set up Crisp, so we could create tech that would solve the problem of toxic, illegal and brand-unsafe user-generated content online. Given my experience with Dubit, our first market was protecting children in online games.

Today, Crisp is a global company protecting some of the world’s biggest brands, kids’ games and social platforms from the riskiest of content. As CEO, I’m always looking for new opportunities to grow Crisp further, whether that’s by finding a way to protect our customers from emerging risks or keeping up with world events to spot trends that could become a risk. I tend to split my day between meeting customers or with various parts of the business and working on business strategy, developing opportunities and writing pitches.

What differs Crisp from other social media risk companies?

As social media grows, so does the risk management industry, but what sets Crisp apart is our focus on preventing brand crises.

We don’t simply identify a risk using a keyword filter; instead we use human intelligence to seek out subtle risks and toxic themes in pieces of user-generated content and alert our clients to the high-impact risks that they really care about so that they get the earliest warning possible about an impending PR issue.

We achieve this by continuously innovating and ensuring that whatever we create is produced for good and will ensure we provide our clients with the best-quality service.

Our team of engineers are recruited for their problem solving skills, creative thinking and ability to push technology and AI to its absolute limit.

What are your greatest challenges ahead at Crisp when it comes to managing your customers’ risk and developing your offer?

Simply, we have to keep ahead of the risks and stay ahead of the game. Every day, we identify new threats from bad actors, and every day it’s an ongoing battle. The type of risks which we concern our customers with range from inflammatory influencer comments and physical threats to their offices and outlets, to cries for help and identifying child sexual abuse material. This content has real-life impact on people’s jobs, lives and wellbeing, so we can’t let any harmful content through for the public’s view.

To ensure we achieve this, we are always evolving our technology and our capability to protect our customers online, but the risks online are also evolving, as are the impact they can have on a client’s business. This means that one of our biggest challenges at Crisp is innovating fast, without breaking anything!

Have you recently, or are you about to, release any new technology-based solutions that will add to or improve services you offer your clients? If so, what solutions, and how will your customers benefit from them?

Whether we’re monitoring for a certain risk or not, unsafe content still exists online somewhere, and our clients can still be hugely impacted by it if we do not identify it. So we are developing our capability to detect new and emerging risks as they happen.

To give you an example, the Shiggy #InMyFeelings challenge that trended on Twitter and Instagram in July encouraging people to get out of a moving car was a dangerous new risk. No brand or platform would have wanted to be seen supporting this challenge by having user-generated content relating to it appearing on their channels. When our AI first started picking up chatter of this trend across dispersed online sources, we investigated this information, understood the impact that such a dangerous challenge could have on a number of our clients’ brand reputations and implemented systems. We did all this to ensure we were able to alert them within minutes of Shiggy-related content appearing on their pages.

As every client is affected to varying degrees by each risk, we believe that uncovering risks that have never been seen before is the most effective way of providing our clients with the very best online protection for their brand.

Can you share a specific story about when you reacted early to a severe risk situation, and the impact it had on your client?

We react in minutes to every piece of risky content. For high priority risks which we know could have serious consequences for our clients, we verify that the threat is credible and alert our customers (by phone, text or email) within minutes – we put a 100% guarantee on this!

Our fast reaction and early warnings give clients the best chance of successfully protecting their brand from a PR issue. This could be activists attacking the brand, executives embroiled in a scandal, or viral complaints about a product defect.

Recently we alerted a fashion brand to the fact that the image on one of their new garments was causing offense to veterans on social media. As soon as we identified complaints about this particular garment, we notified the brand so they could pull the clothing line before it offended more customers and allowed them to implement their crisis communications.

Your business has grown quite rapidly over the last couple of years; what are the greatest challenges for a company when growing at such a pace?

Our company has grown so fast because everyone in the company – from the top down – has an agile mindset. This is what keeps us innovating and turning problems into new opportunities; so one of our challenges has been recruiting people who are comfortable working in this fast-paced, ever-changing environment.

Another challenge we’re facing is one that many high-growth companies suffer, and that is ensuring consistent communication. As priorities and company goals evolve so quickly, keeping every one of our 100+ team members on-message and up-to-speed is a daily challenge.

Is fake news or fake sources a big issue for the social risk management that you do? If so, what are the challenges for the risk management for your customers and how do you cope with it?

Our big-name clients are concerned about their brand being associated with fake news stories and the PR implications of misleading their customers in some way. Despite the topic of fake news actually being discussed less online, it is such a volatile topic that could pull brands into a crisis at any time through no wrongdoing of their own.

Earlier this year I provided evidence to the UK House of Commons Select Committee about how fake news can be solved and for our clients. We are working with the latest technology to help identify possible fake news and alert them to it so they can act quickly to set the record straight.

Social media risk management, compared to, for instance, traditional social media monitoring, demands much higher coverage of sources to detect “flares” that can become a potentially huge risk. How do you make sure that you cover all media sources?

We search for risks which will have an impact on our customers’ brands. To do this, we monitor a wide range of platforms, including all the major social platforms, review sites, forums and news sites.

If a negative piece of content is starting to gain traction, it will appear in our monitoring. This means even if a whistleblowing employee publishes an exposé on a blog with only a handful of subscribers, as it starts being shared and therefore becoming a risk to the implicated brand, we will pick it up in minutes and assess the potential damage it could have on our client’s reputation.

We also monitor the dark web for some clients where counterfeit goods, grooming and abuse are an issue for them. It’s best that our clients do not search the dark web themselves, so we do this for them safely.

When it comes to the actual data behind the social media risk management that you do, what kind of data or media not used for your analysis today may be interesting in the future? 

One area that’s becoming increasingly important is video and the associated speech contained within them. Video is so prolific on social media now that it’s important for technology to be able to identify risks within spoken words.

What new social media threats or risks have started, or are about to emerge that you think can have a great impact in the near future?

Everyday new risks are emerging. One of the most worrying ones we’re seeing at the moment is a surge in challenges, like swallowing Tide washing powder pods. Recently, the Momo challenge which encourages self-harm or suicide, is thought to have claimed two lives. Not only would no brand want to be associated with encouraging these types of challenges, as they started to gain traction, we would alert brands where related content appeared on their channels.

How do you think the industry around social media risk management will change in the next 5 years, and what are the greatest challenges ahead?

We’re already seeing some unexpected ramifications of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the UK, like attacks of people requesting their data, and these will continue as companies fall foul of the regulations and users find loopholes to exploit.

There will also be interesting challenges and debates as laws try to keep up with social media evolution. The debate about who is responsible for policing social media is a case in point that is on-going and will be for the foreseeable future.

Another challenge which we are already seeing is consumers expecting faster and faster engagement with brands. If a customer asks a brand about product availability, they expect a response in minutes, otherwise they will open a new tab and shop elsewhere. However many brands congratulate themselves on responding to customers in 24 hours. This demand for social media interaction also means that moderation teams need to react faster to calm disgruntled customers and manage enquiries.

How do you envision Crisp will change and develop over the next 5 years?

Crisp is already growing massively year-to-year, and that is set to continue through substantial organic growth from investments in our sales and marketing efforts. Over the course of five years, the online risk landscape will change beyond recognition from what it is like now, so we will continue our ongoing investment in R&D. We think of ourselves as agile innovators and cannot leave brands, platforms or vulnerable users open to any risk, so as online risk evolves, so does our technology.

By Renata Ilitsky