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.

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