In the days before the internet, reputation management was primarily the purview of public relations firms. But, in the social media era every brand needs to keep a watchful eye on what is being said about them online.
Online reputation management (ORM) involves monitoring and responding to the various digital channels that are reviewing, commenting, or otherwise discussing your brand on sites like Yelp, Facebook, Amazon, and Wikipedia.
One of the clearest indicators of your reputation online are search engine results. If the top hits on Google are all people grousing about you, perhaps it’s time to take proactive steps to improve your reputation.
When to Fight Back
For example in 2011, Taco Bell found itself embroiled in a minor dustup when false accusations were made about the quality of the beef it uses in its products. A law firm filed a class action lawsuit based on those allegations, but the suit was thrown out for lack of merit.
Taco Bell moved quickly to nip the scandal in the bud with a reputation management campaign directed at the law firm titled “Would it kill you to say you’re sorry?” that appeared in several print and online news outlets.
By taking charge of its reputation and zealously guarding it from false accusations, the brand staved off further bad press, took control of the narrative, and helped push public perception back into a positive direction.
Keep Your Ear to the Ground
In a perfect world there would be no gap between how you perceive your brand and how others do. Unfortunately, you can’t control what is being said about you. But, ORM helps you gain some influence over the public perception of your brand.
The playbook for ORM is fairly straightforward:
- Monitor what is being said about you online
- Address content which is potentially damaging to your brand
- Use customer feedback to anticipate problems before they occur
The end goal is to push down negative search results, counter harmful stories, and give greater prominence to constructive communications.
Don’t Make Things Worse
Much like search engine optimization (SEO), the tools of ORM run the gamut from ‘White Hat’ (ethical, accepted, proper) to ‘Black Hat’ (disingenuous, unscrupulous, potentially illegal):
White Hat ORM:
- Publishing high quality, original content that organically outperforms negative results
- Submitting legal take-down requests to sites publishing inaccurate information about your brand
- Responding to public criticism and concerns in a timely and respectful manner
- Offering free products to prominent reviewers
- Sending press releases to heavily trafficked third-party websites to promote brand presence
Black Hat ORM:
- Suppressing negative sites with spammers or denial-of-service attacks
- Creating fake blogs or user accounts to disseminate counter narratives
- Sending take-down notifications for content that is being hosted legally
Unethical practices run the risk of exposing your brand to additional negative attention and reduce the effectiveness of future reputation management efforts. Linda Katehi, the former chancellor of UC, Davis learned this lesson the hard way late last year.
After video of campus police improperly pepper-spraying student protestors went viral in 2011, Katehi spent $175,000 on reputation management consultants who promised to scrub the video from the internet.
Not only were they unsuccessful, but when the expenditure was made public the ensuing backlash made the situation even worse, further tarnishing the school’s reputation and ultimately costing Katehi her job in 2016.
In another case of Black Hat ORM being exposed, in 2015 Amazon cracked down on fake five star reviews being posted for products it was selling.
A number of companies with questionable practices have arisen that will sell you social media likes, positive reviews, fake followers, and other illicit digital services that might give you a short-term lift, but that probably won’t provide lasting brand benefits and could seriously harm your reputation if you’re found out.
Your reputation is a double-edged sword. If left unmanaged and unprotected it can end up diminishing brand equity, but is also a powerful asset if leveraged properly.
“We need to think about our reputations as a constant, competitive advantage; a driver of growth and prosperity; and a strategic asset.”
Consumers are jaded about traditional advertising and increasingly use recommendations from individuals in their social networks when making buying decisions.
So don’t think about reputation management only as a tool for responding to crises, but also as a marketplace differentiator. In the words of marketing commentator Steve Olenski: “We need to think about our reputations as a constant, competitive advantage; a driver of growth and prosperity; and a strategic asset.”