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Online reputation: 6 steps to manage a crisis

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No business can eliminate negative buzz, especially on the web, but you can manage and minimise the impact. By JASON WEST and AMANDA GOME

By Jason West and Amanda Gome

How to manage your online reputation

No business can eliminate negative buzz, especially on the web, but you can manage and minimise the impact.

In 2005, Dell faced a major crisis after US blogger, Jeff Jarvis, posted a negative comment about his new computer. Jarvis was just a regular Joe who went online to tell the world he was cranky with Dell. An avalanche of similar complaints followed, sending Dell’s reputation into a tailspin. Known as “Dell hell”, the incident had far-reaching effects.

Incidents like this has spawned a new category in the PR industry; online reputation management. Being the online reputation strategist is the hottest new role at large companies as they come to terms with the fact that the web can make or break a brand.

In fact many regard Google as not just a search engine but a reputation management system.

It’s the first place people go for information on your company’s products or services, making it a major marketing tool for you – and as such is the starting point for your reputation among consumers.

When people type a term into Google, the search engine puts the site with the most links pointing towards it at the top of its listings.

Social media sites with forums and bloggists have a huge say on Google’s search results because they love to link – but often link to things they hate. Today’s time-poor consumers have little inclination to log on and sing the praises of their favourite corporate giant. But when they feel wronged, they wrest back control by airing their grievances to the world online – and with the joy of anonymity, they don’t hold back.

So a bad comment can sit at the top of Google for months. Add to that the openness of Google – being transparent, frankly stating an opinion and seeking others opinions, posting reviews and the constant demand for fresh material – means that criticism can metastasize.

But companies are finally appreciating the potential damage that can be caused, and monitoring what is being said about them over the internet.

The new industry – online reputation management – combines public relations with search engine optimisation to ensure a company’s reputation remains consistent online. While companies can’t eliminate negative buzz, they can manage and minimise the impact.

The first step is to monitor everything said about you online – analyse its impact, and act quickly to influence any potentially harmful or damaging buzz.

1. Keep your website at the top of Google

Eight out of 10 searches go through Google, and 60% of users don’t go past the first results page.

If your website is being pushed further down the page by a constant barrage of criticism, the only thing consumers will see is negative comments about your company. Keeping your message at the top of the page effectively dictates the information people read, influences their opinion of your products or services, and can influence their decision to buy.

Constantly adding new information keeps your website fresh and relevant, resulting in higher SEO in search results. Companies that sell services to manage online reputations can assist with this. Organising links from other sites also increases your website’s traffic.

2. Engage in social media

Consumers have more faith in what other consumers say than what your company says. If you can win over an influential blogger or get your website highlighted on social media websites such as digg.com, your reputation could be improved.

Contribute to online forums and blogs, and directly address negative comments. Most sites allow direct replies to comments and consumers love it when a company replies, as it shows they are being heard. Set up your own company blog, post interesting articles and make your website more interactive.

It took Dell a year to respond to the relentless online criticism, but once it got its head around it, Dell effectively repaired the damage through initiatives such as the online complaint blog, Direct2Dell.com, and ideastorm.com, which invited ideas for products from consumers and requested their feedback on new technologies.

3. Host the conversation

After you join a negative conversation where your company is under fire, try to usher people to a location controlled by you as it can be very difficult to respond to every blog or forum comment. That way you are the host and at least have some control.

4. Make corrections, but don’t get precious

It’s perfectly reasonable to correct factual errors, but don’t get carried away or it will look like blatant corporate censorship. Remember the Wikipedia furor in 2007, when it was revealed the Defence Department had made 5000 changes to the editable online encyclopedia, which actually made it one of the site’s most prolific users?

The Prime Minister’s Department also made changes – 126 to be exact, among them the removal of the nickname “Captain Smirk” from Peter Costello’s profile.

5. Get comments off Google

If you consider the comments made against your company defamatory, you can request their removal from the webmaster running that web site. If they refuse, a letter from your lawyers might work.

Once the comments are off the website, the search results will reflect the removal only after the robots have crawled the site again. It is possible to get the comments removed immediately by submitting a request to Google using the webpage removal request tool.

Rob Shilken, head of communications, says Google tries to complete the removal in three to five days. He would not say how many requests Google attends to on a daily basis. “Content removed with this tool will be excluded from the Google index for a minimum of 90 days, regardless of whether the content becomes available to our crawler during that time.” Successful SafeSearch removals will be permanently excluded from Google SafeSearch results.

6. Keep your PR transparent

In 2006, US shopping conglomerate Wal-Mart was suffering heavy criticism over claims of stingy employee wages, as well as its seemingly callous attitude to the “mom and pop” small businesses going under due to its aggressive expansion.

A PR opportunity presented itself when a couple, Jim and Laura, approached them about a story they intended to do on their experiences driving across America in an RV. As Wal-Mart allowed RV drivers to park in its carparks for free, the couple decided to touch base with the company.

Wal-Mart jumped at the opportunity, provided a Wal-Mart branded RV, paid for their gas, set up a blog and paid Laura to write it. What followed was a series of glowing stories about happy Wal-Mart employees, and although a Wal-Mart banner appeared on the blog, there were no details of its sponsorship. Once revealed, the media ferociously accused Wal-Mart of deception, setting its reputation even further back.

“You can’t hide anything anymore,” says Don Tapscott, co-author of The Naked Corporation, a book about corporate transparency. After all, if you engage in reputation manipulation, people will find out, and your company will be humiliated and then have to work hard to win that trust back.

 

 

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