Putting online reputation management on front foot

Can you really control what a search engine listing says about a brand? More than you might imagine, as shown by Tesco's handling of the horsemeat crisis, but planning must be in place.

ORM. What is it exactly? Google your name. Is the picture a fair one, a true representation of your personality, your interests and achievements, or is it a travesty, loudly broadcasting some misinformation while omitting the important facts? Now Google a high profile individual or organisation you work for and ask the same question: is it a fair and accurate representation, and if not, what can be done about it? The answer is ORM: online reputation management.

The rapid growth of online media, comp­ounded by increasingly sophisticated search habits, is having profound implications on the reputations of brands and individuals.

While the legal debate centres around "continuous publication", today’s comms teams face a threefold challenge: the veracity of social media and its ability to drive the media agenda; the high visibility of these channels and their content, and the ability of search engines to give people a first impression of your brand before they have experienced it. You might say that if mainstream media are the judges, then social media are the jury.

Every month, 1.2 billion people worldwide use Google to make 13 billion searches – and it is not just the Big G. In August, Yahoo overtook Google’s monthly traffic for the first time in two years.

The rise of Facebook and YouTube among the world’s largest search engines reiterates the importance of shared content in maintaining a good online reputation. So when you hear that 75 per cent of people click on the first five search engine results and only ten per cent go to page two, you will understand why search engines, particularly Google, are so influential.

The crucial point is that the people and stakeholders who are forming and assessing reputations – journalists, customers, investors, financiers, lawyers – are doing so online.

A Google search is usually the first port of call for anyone considering a business prospect, so a sensationalist headline or some rogue bloggers can soon turn them off.

For example, take the horsemeat scandal. Google "Findus Foods", one of the firms at the centre of the furore. On the first page of results is a BBC video titled "Findus beef lasagne contained up to 100 per cent horsemeat". There is also a page on the Food Standards Agency site about the same product. Both are afforded high domain authority, which is why, without enough alternative content to compete with them, they are still highly visible.

Now Google "Tesco", arguably the brand most associated with the story. Not only does the word "horsemeat" not appear on the first page of results, it is completely absent from Google’s first 20 pages. Tesco.com, the main corporate website, is also well optimised, ensuring Google site links dominate search results "above the fold". Even Tesco’s 9,000-word Wikipedia article contains just 90 words on the issue.

Furthermore, Tesco’s online response was swift and proactive. It launched tescofoodnews.com, which explains how products are tested, publishes the results of each test and provides content explaining the firm’s supply chains. Tesco has not manipulated search engines; it has simply understood them and taken the agenda forward.

The Findus/Tesco comparison is a clear demonstration of the need for preparedness and high quality, on-message content, which is why digital agencies with a PR heritage are best placed to deliver. ORM has too often been tarred with the "dark arts" brush – the notion something subversive is going on.

One of the reasons for this is that too many practitioners take the quick-fix, spam approach. Flooding a Google page with an incoherent hotchpotch of blogs, newswires, discount codes and fake reviews may temporarily displace unwanted content, but can never produce an authentic, accurate and holistic presence that will stand the test of time.

For that, strategy and planning are essential. How do you want to be perceived and positioned? What is your point of view on relevant issues? In a world where first impressions are made online, Google is the new courtroom of public opinion.

That is why strategic, content-led online reputation management should be central to any
comms campaign. So before Google casts its verdict, the job rests with PR practitioners to mount the strongest possible case. So here are five ORM tips:

  1. Understand the reputational issue and the wider context
  2. Identify the key channels and the SEO rivals
  3. Carefully consider your positioning
  4. Develop well-optimised digital assets and content
  5. Implement your campaign, monitoring and refining as required

Views in brief

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary recently told our sister title Marketing that negative publicity (such as the oft-rumoured plan to charge passengers to use toilets) generates so much more online traffic to the airline’s site that it results in more sales than positive publicity. What’s your response?

O’Leary is a Marmite of a man. While all publicity is arguably good publicity, and all website traffic is arguably good traffic, these things have to happen for the right reason. Would he be saying the same thing if one of his aircraft went down? While web traffic would increase, it would not be good publicity and not be the kind of traffic any brand would wish for. So, while I agree with most of his stunts and media responses around "customers know we’re cheap", sometimes a little more tact is required, particularly when consumer group Which? recently reported that Ryanair has the worst customer service of Britain’s 100 biggest brands.


James Thomlinson, partner and MD Bell Pottinger Wired

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