Never underestimate the power of Facebook. A campaign led by the National Union of Students this summer resulted in 5000 students signing up to a group called 'Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off', protesting at the bank's announcement that it was scrapping free overdrafts of up to £1500 for recent graduates. At the end of August HSBC reversed its decision in an attempt to stem the online tide of bad publicity. 'We are not too big to listen to the needs of our customers,' said head of product development, Andy Ripley. But it was clear that the financial giant's reputation had been damaged and would have been hurt far more had it not executed a swift U-turn.
This unqualified victory for the consumer illustrates how vulnerable brand reputation is in an age where anyone can be an online campaigner. The rise of social networking sites and the explosion of the blogosphere have created innumerable platforms from which individuals and groups can espouse their views. These opinions, whether favourable or harmful, informed or ignorant, may well have an impact on a brand.
The problem for brand owners in dealing with comment in the vast and fast-changing online world is identifying which groups and bloggers have the influence to affect what they do and how they are seen, and how to engage with them. 'From a media relations and thought leadership point of view, we are very conscious of user blogs and other online user opinions,' admits Aldo Liguori, Sony Ericsson's corporate vice-president of global corporate communications and PR. 'We're cautious of the social networking sites because some of the content that is uploaded leaves a lot to be desired, so we focus more on influential tech bloggers who might recommend our phones.'
Traditionally, reputation management has been the preserve of PR, but although most sizeable agencies have some online PR skills, there is still considerable room for improvement. 'The PR community is still, by and large, communicating with the press,' says Andrew Muir, managing director of Vocus Europe, a specialist in online monitoring. 'Not all of them have woken up to the fact that they need to communicate with bloggers and consumers who are surfing the net every day.'
Online services on offer to brands include search-engine-optimised press releases posted online 'direct to the consumer' and picked up and ranked by the likes of Google. YouTube videos can be attached and iTunes files embedded to deliver a trackable multimedia communication, enabling brands to follow what is posted about them on blogs that take the release. Other services are also launching, such as Prompt Communications' Blog Monitor, which is being used by Yell. A web portal is customised for clients, with daily email alerts and weekly reports to tell them what is being said about their brand online.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is also being used to back events. Through agency Cake, Visit London turfed Trafalgar Square to promote its 'Village London' campaign. The agency ensured plenty of photos were taken and used SEO techniques in tandem with traditional PR to generate international online coverage. According to Cake chief executive Mike Mathieson, 'the lines are blurring between search and PR'.
However, a row later erupted over the costs of the activity, which used 2000ft2 of turf in the same week that the London Assembly's environment committee published a report exposing the fact that London councils have removed nearly 40,000 trees in the past five years. Visit London insisted no money had been wasted: the turf had later been relaid in a run-down park.
The rise of online activity has further implications for the historic guardians of reputation. Some SEO specialists and other digital agencies are broadening their offer and may pose a growing competitive threat to the PR sector. However, some agencies are seizing opportunities, either by forging alliances with SEO or word-of-mouth specialists or building their own capability in-house.
Some SEO companies are keen to collaborate with PR practitioners. 'Applying an SEO strategy in collaboration with effective digital PR is the best way to negate negative coverage and develop a brand's positive reputation online,' argues Lucy Allen, managing director of SEO company Netrank. 'SEO practitioners have a range of skills that will help with heightening the coverage gained online,' she adds. 'However, PR skills are still essential in the online environment.'
But in other cases, SEO firms may be quite happy to move into PR territory. As a smaller agency, 3 Monkeys is savvy enough to understand that it cannot offer every service and has worked with specialist word-of-mouth agency 1000heads on several assignments. Weber Shandwick, meanwhile, is working closely with SEO agency Reprise Media, a fellow IPG business, on certain projects, while Nelson Bostock works with Creston group sibling Tullo Marshall Warren, which has developed a chatter-influence measurement tool called Sway.
'We listen to what brands' customers are saying about them, make sense of the information, put metrics on it and feed it back,' explains 1000heads managing director Mike Rowe. 'We talk about radical transparency. A brand has to be transparent in what it is doing.'
Rowe's agency has worked with Nokia to help seed positive word of mouth. It identified five highly influential bloggers from around the world and took them to New York to show them the N95 handset. But for the most part, he says, the key is not to 'message' the blogosphere. The big opportunity for brands is to understand who likes and dislikes them and what the triggers are for conversation.
'Sometimes the most obscure conversations are the ones that feed a viral wave,' says Edelman's head of digital strategy Michael Wiley. 'The challenge is convincing brands they need to participate. But unless a company can be agile enough to do it in a way that is not concocted or gimmicky, it will fail.'
Wiley advises brand owners to talk to their employees, suppliers and customers to ensure everyone is on board. Honesty is paramount, meaning fake blogs, sometimes called 'flogs', are a definite no-no. US retailer Wal-Mart ended up being vilified when an ostensibly independent blog was found to be a PR-engineered vehicle designed by Edelman.
Golley Slater director of social media Stephen Fitzpatrick argues that no one yet has the right business model with embedded skill sets, and warns that PR agencies may lose their status as trusted adviser. The key, he says, is for PR agencies to find clients with the vision to commit budgets to a 'real-time team' to monitor and respond to brand reputation issues.
The eventual emergence of 'social search' engines is, he adds, likely to make inroads into the SEO offering and business model, with the upshot that they will probably become more aggressive competitors. 'We are integrating search and PR teams to create an offering that marries the online and conventional PR skills - play the game from both ends,' says Fitzpatrick. 'The teams sit in the same room, and I act as mediator.'
Dealing with online brand issues requires a considered response. Sometimes dealing directly with detractors makes sense, but in other instances a different approach may be more effective. 'The online and offline audiences are the same people,' says Jean Wyllie, chief executive of Omnicom's Porter Novelli. 'Brands sometimes forget that one of the most powerful tools they have for addressing online issues is traditional offline media.'
CASE STUDY - TETRA PAK
Packaging giant Tetra Pak is working with Fishburn Hedges to address recycling issues. The agency actively engages with bloggers who 'get things wrong' about packaging recycling, providing links to Tetra Pak's website showing where and how its products can be recycled. It even implores visitors to tetrapakrecycling.co.uk to 'spread the word' about recycling, and includes a video of a woman with a loud-hailer proclaiming that 'cartons are recyclable'.
Tetra Pak marketing and environment director John Rose oversees this fast-growing area. 'We are trying to make sure we deal in facts, not rumour,' he says. 'There's a lot of misunderstanding out there and it's hard to know who these people are, who they know and what reach they have. And yet they are often regarded as more reliable sources than, for example, our political masters.'
With this in mind, the brand takes care to respond 'gently' to any inaccurate blog postings about it in an effort not to invite a chatroom backlash. The rule of thumb is that the more established and responsible the online environment, the more likely it is that there will be a fair right to reply.
On occasion, Rose will respond personally, but he makes sure never to do anything on the spur of the moment that he might later regret. Standard practice is to issue a response from a named Tetra Pak environment manager and then to continue the dialogue if required, even if it veers into other areas.
'Messages are only going to get more complicated,' says Rose. 'The debate will move onto areas such as carbon footprints. To engage with certain audiences we'll have to work with responsible bloggers.'
This article was first published on Marketing