Reputation has always mattered. We might not have had to worry about “cancel culture” or bad online reviews in our past, but there’s never been a time when people didn’t gossip with their friends and neighbors about other people. Consumers today talk about  businesses the same way, backed by a social-media megaphone that can make or break a brand in an instant.

Like it or not, having a reputation is part of being a brand today — and the sooner you learn how to manage yours, the better. But beware: many of the PR and marketing agencies that claim to specialize in online reputation management (ORM) don’t have the best reputations themselves.

With this in mind, here’s an overview of what reputation management is, where it comes from, how it’s moved online, and the best practices for protecting your brand today.

What Is Reputation Management?

Think of reputation management as PR playing defense, such as when:

  • Your customers are posting one-star Google reviews;
  • Your employees are trashing you on Glassdoor;
  • A lawsuit against your company appears high in your branded search results; 
  • A negative news story accuses you of incompetent management or various misdeeds; or
  • You or one of your employees gets “canceled” on Twitter for a bad decision or poor choice of words.

In a world where anyone can find out a wealth of information about your brand with a single Google search, managing your reputation is more critical than ever. That controversial Facebook post they dug up from when your newly hired CEO was in college? That dodgy character that invested in your company? That media misquote that took on a life of its own? Careers and businesses have been ruined over less.

When reputation issues flare from a low smoulder to a five-alarm fire, that’s a form of reputation management known as crisis communications. I've worked crises ranging from workplace shootings to sex scandals and more, and the stakes are never higher when it comes to a brand preserving trust.

The biggest crisis I've faced in my career was a tech outage that impacted millions of Americans, when I spent two full days talking to reporters on TV, in print and online. It was exhausting but rewarding for my company. When you handle a crisis well, the reputational halo for your brand can be powerful.

What's the difference between reputation management and crisis communications? Reputation adds the dimensions of time and perspective. To put it in baseball terms, when a pitcher faces a homerun hitter with a tie score in the bottom of the ninth, that's either going to be a crisis or a crisis averted. When a pitcher earns a low or high ERA over the course of a season, that pitcher ends up with either a good reputation or a bad one.

An Enduring Declaration of Principles

The modern public relations industry has been around for about 120 years. One of its founding documents was the “Declaration of Principles” issued by Ivy Lee upon leaving journalism to start his own agency in 1906. Lee put forward the proposition that PR firms should serve not simply as corporate mouthpieces, but as honest brokers for the public. 

As Lee put it:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency … Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact. ... In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

Though PR practitioners — including Lee — have not always lived up to these ideals in practice, they have served as true north for the profession ever since. As historian Eric F. Goldman later put it, Lee’s statement signaled that “the public was no longer to be ignored, in the traditional manner of business, nor fooled ... It was to be informed."

This approach helped PR practitioners to establish credibility with the news media and, by extension, the public. Earning this trust has proven most important when crises or reputation management issues occurred. Lee himself demonstrated this when he represented the Pennsylvania Railroad after one of its trains crashed, killing 50 people.

Before Lee, U.S. railroads mostly downplayed accidents, sometimes refusing to admit they occurred. They hid evidence and kept journalists away from crash sites. Lee changed all that by actually inviting reporters to the scene of the accident, holding on-site briefings and making executives available for interviews. The result was what scholars characterized as the first positive news coverage for the railroad industry in years.  

Lee’s work set the tone for the practice of reputation management by PR agencies for decades to come. After the Public Relations Society of America was founded in 1947, it established the PRSA Code of Ethics to guide PR practitioners, articulating the importance of avoiding deceptive practices to maintain public trust.

Then along came the internet — and everything became more complicated.

Online Reputation Management (ORM) and Its Challenges

We live our lives online today, and that means how we appear in a Google search is more important than an article in a newspaper that mentions us. That’s why PR today must take a broader approach to building and maintaining reputation — one encompassing all the ways audiences gain or lose trust in brands.

Unfortunately, traditional PR practitioners, like their counterparts in the news media, were slow to adapt to the online world in the early days of the web. This created an opportunity for digital marketers with no background in PR to put up shingles proclaiming themselves experts in “online reputation management,” or ORM. An entirely new cottage industry emerged, beginning with the launch of companies like ReputationDefender in 2006.

As traditional PR practitioners continued to focus on distributing press releases and telling their clients’ side of the story to reporters, ORM began to operate behind the scenes to improve the results of Google searches for their clients. This included activities to “push down” negative search results — such as bad online reviews and news stories — as well as to remove those results altogether.

While some ORM practitioners have high ethical standards, many work in a way that is inconsistent with the PRSA’s Code of Ethics — and ultimately risky for their clients’ reputations as well. Similar to black-hat SEO firms, they offer a “quick fix” rather than doing the harder work of getting to the root of a reputation problem.

Some examples of these questionable practices include:

  • Creating fake reviews to try to push down negative reviews and increase a client’s star rating on review sites;
  • Buying backlinks in violation of Google’s policies to artificially improve the search position of positive content; 
  • Buying mentions with under-the-table payments in articles on popular publications and blogs;
  • Creating Wikipedia pages for clients, when this is against Wikipedia’s guidelines;
  • Posting knowingly false information, such as claiming a client has given to charities or won awards that it hasn’t.

As ethical PR firms have gradually gotten up to speed on ORM in recent years, many are bringing a different mindset to online reputation — one that takes the longer view.

The right way to improve a reputation includes:

  • Consulting with the client to get at the core of their reputational issues;
  • Developing a plan to communicate actual changes in the business to address these issues;
  • Responding to unhappy customers on social media and review sites and making amends;
  • Identifying happy customers through Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys and encouraging them to leave authentic positive reviews;
  • Earning positive media coverage to tell your side of the story and to show you have overcome your reputational issues.

Choosing the Right Agency Partner

Taking this more strategic view doesn’t mean you can’t address issues quickly. Let me share an example of a reputation management challenge my agency recently took on.

We had a client — a global midmarket company — that had a long history of a positive reputation, but that had been acquired two years earlier, leading to many changes in leadership, organizational structure and product strategy in a short time. This led to dozens of negative Glassdoor reviews and a three-star rating — a big turnoff not only to prospective employees, but also potential clients.

Even with swift changes to improve employee morale and an active internal NPS program, it can take months to improve a poor Glassdoor rating. The client understandably wanted the public to know about the changes it had made, and the happy employees it had earned, sooner than that.

So we recommended that they set up authentic profiles, with authentic reviews, on alternative employer review sites. These sites are not as well known as Glassdoor, but by establishing a presence on them, the client could draw those reviews to the first page of the client’s branded search results. This would provide a more well-rounded view of the company.

Reputation management has undergone some big changes over the last century — and in all likelihood, those changes will continue. Should you choose an agency to help you navigate this evolving landscape, be sure to choose one that adheres to ethical standards of conduct, such as PRSA’s Code of Ethics. It’s the right thing to do, and will achieve more lasting results over time.

Scott Baradell is CEO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency based in Dallas. For more than 15 years, Scott has been a thought leader on the future of public relations. In 2020, Scott began writing “Trust Signals: The New PR,” outlining a new framework for the practice of public relations, to be published by LionCrest in 2021. Put simply, “trust signals” are evidence points, from media coverage and online reviews to website “trust badges,” that make people believe in your brand. Scott has an Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the PRSA and speaks on PR and marketing topics at industry events nationwide.

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