Based on a conversation with a seasoned corporate communicator:
In the mid 80s, when the person in question started their career, any adverse reporting was deemed harmful. Press-clipping syndrome was very prevalent, meaning that anything published that could be deemed critical was taken very seriously indeed. This was an age when NGOs were just starting out and industry-bashing was in its infancy, so the fuss was probably all a little pointless.
In the nineties, and the noughties especially, with the web and social media taking off, the issue of loss of message-control was very prevalent. The fact that Tom, Dick and Harry could say whatever they wanted and gain an audience was seen as an existential threat. Press-clipping syndrome remained somewhat prevalent, and coupled with the might of the NGOs that were supporting Tom, Dick and Harry in their endeavours, critical reporting was deemed very dangerous indeed and increasingly hard to manage given the proliferation of channels.
In 2012, it’s all still pretty frightening, although not ALL stuff that is published and in the public domain is deemed as potentially dangerous. We’ve got better at differentiating: high-influence, high-quality influencers we care about, trolls, less so. This probably stems in part from the fact that industry has got better at using the channels itself and so essentially understands them and the threat that a single event may represent far better than just a few years ago.
In the future? 2012 evolved: adverse coverage will continue, but it will seldom come as a surprise. Organisations will be fully ingrained in the social media space, and numerous people will be entitled to track and respond, not just a couple of spokespeople. Individually, that which is deemed harmful will also develop. For instance, while we now hear of firms not hiring someone because they’ve found pictures of them on an all-night bender, in future, surely, people’s records online will be so comprehensive that we’ll expect nothing less!