Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Does PR 'own' online reputation management?

It’s great news that Centaur is investing in the new Reputation Online project (launching end September). How to manage your reputation online is one of the biggest issues facing brands today. It’s also one of the reasons that companies can be so reluctant to get too heavily involved in the social media space. It still takes a brave company to entrust its brand’s reputation to its users.

PR at its core has always been about managing a company’s reputation. In the old days when print, broadcast and radio were separate entities and the Internet wasn’t a consideration, you had a fair chance of making a bad news story go away if handled right. I’m old enough to remember when managing an issue meant pulling in favours from journalists, fronting a credible spokesperson, and diminishing a bad story – often by creating another one to cover it. Spin, in other words. If you could weather the immediate storm (not everyone did), you’d probably be ok.

But these days, online engagement and user generated content means brands lose their control of a corporate message the minute they hand it over to their users. (You could argue that they always did – who can control what someone says about you in the pub? The difference is you didn’t know about it, and it wasn’t public. Or visible forever). Your spokesperson is no longer your CEO, it’s the customer who’s really, really cross. And is setting up a hate site, is smarter than you at SEO, or is leading a Twitter ‘fail’ campaign.

The only really meaningful way to make sure that the majority of what’s said about you is positive, is to make sure what you’re doing is right to start with. (That’s not to say there aren’t effective ways of managing an issue once it strikes – but that’s a subject for another time.) PR now needs to get much deeper under the skin of a company if we are to give real advice on reputation management. We need to get away completely from ‘we’ve just done this, can you promote it’ and take up a much more strategic role within a client company. We need to be involved in understanding how a company works from top to bottom. Not just marketing, but sales, business development, product development, HR, customer service and even SLAs.

Some clients just won’t let you get that far into the business. Some are just too huge, with marketing and PR team structures that don’t let you near a board director. But if the teams who supposedly manage reputations aren’t getting into the boardroom, then what they’re doing isn’t important enough to the company.

I don’t think there are many companies left that don’t consider reputation management or communications to be an important part of their business. Which means agencies that aren’t connecting with their clients at board level aren’t doing a good enough job. I expect that’s down to two things: the agency reporting to a PR or marketing manager who themselves don't get near the board (so don't really know what impact they're making); and the (connected) age-old problem of agency margins being squeezed, so cheaper, less experienced people are put on the client account, which means they can’t consult, which reduces the value of the agency, which squeezes margins.. and so on.

Reputation management is the core remit of PR. And yet this downwards spiral means the PR industry is consistently fails to manage its own reputation. Let’s take our own advice. If what we do is effective, our reputation will improve. If our reputation improves, we make more money. If we make more money, we invest in the best people, who give the best advice to our clients… and so on.

The biggest challenge facing brands online is managing their reputation. In PR, we manage reputations. It’s a huge opportunity if we choose to grasp it.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Is PR dead, or just changing?

Publicly, the PR industry is claiming that it is stabilising after a difficult 12 months, and that new business is on the up. I think this is true, although privately I’ve heard concerns that the quality of leads is reducing, the pitch process is becoming even more random, and resources are being squeezed harder than ever. This means lower fees, lower turnover, lower profits. Which means lower-grade people, and so lower fees…

We can reverse this, if we understand how our industry is changing. Smaller, smarter clients are investing more, not less, in getting their communications right across the board, in order to differentiate in a tough market. To me, this is taking PR back to its roots – building relationships with a company’s public audience – through direct communications, not just through third party media endorsement. Traditional media circulation and influence is in freefall (reflected by low ad rates). The greatest influence is coming from the media you can’t buy: social sites, word of mouth marketing (what your mates down the pub think), bloggers, online communities and so on.

Creating influence that supports business growth is about more than persuading increasingly cynical journalists to write about your client. It’s also about direct communication with a public audience (you know, public relations). This marks a real shift in how PR has been seen over the last decade. Web 2.0 (user-generated content, citizen journalism, blogging, online communities, social media, digital content creation etc) has meant that the third party endorsement by journalists that clients have always sought is just one way of influencing user behaviour. In an online world, users influence each other directly, making traditional media just one in a number of influence channels.

This has two major implications for agencies.

1. Our clients’ products have to be up to the job. If users are going to recommend something to each other, it has to work. No-one’s going to take our word for it any more. I’m old enough to remember the days when you could mass mail a press release and a dodgy photo and see national coverage from it, but those days went with the dot com crash. Journalists are observers, not changers, of behaviour. Some client-side marketing and PR heads - many of whom started their careers during the dot com rise – are taking a long time to realise this, not least because they’re getting bad advice from their agencies. So, we have to learn to consult to our clients and not just take direction. This means putting people with experience onto the job.

2. Agencies need to understand the fundamentals of communicating directly to public audiences, not just through a journalist filter. Although journalists hate wading through marketing jargon, they’ll do it if they have to (ie if the story’s important enough). But client customers won’t bother. If you want someone to explain your product to their mate, you’d better be able to explain it to them first. (To a consumer, a coffee maker is a coffee maker, even if it makes hot chocolate. It’s not a beverage solution). And if you want to retain control of your company’s message, you’d better make it so simple and self-explanatory that it will be remembered and repeated. Agencies need to be able to take a complex message and simplify it, to make it compelling.

I suspect this will be a battle with some of the bigger clients – those who delegate communications to a junior PR manager with little experience (and whose low fees only buy a junior exec at the agency). For every smart client-side marketing manager out there, there is another who’ll refuse to let go of their ‘multi-platforms communications device’ in favour of a ‘mobile phone’.

But clients will only change if agencies give them good advice. Which means investing some of our most senior people to consult, in order to increase the value of communications – in its broadest sense - within the client company.

The result? Spin may well be dead. But communications has a bright future.