The need for effective reputation management has never been more acute, with brands in the public eye more than ever and social media giving consumers a voice to vent their frustrations. Catherine Turner explores what savvy brands are doing to protect their reputation, deal with stumbling blocks, and live up to the expectations of an unforgiving public.
The recent travails of two of the world’s biggest retailers highlight the extremes faced by businesses in a world of online reputation management.
One, Tesco, finds itself in institutional crisis and the subject of a formal criminal investigation (erroneous financial reporting) that goes to the heart of its operations. It has already generated a slew of negative press, both online and off, and social media schadenfreude from those happy to see the once-mighty supermarket fall from grace.
The other, Walmart, faced the ire of the internet when it labelled a section of its seasonal Halloween store ‘Fat Girl Costumes’ – a social media horror story that led to it issuing apology after apology and hurriedly closing down the offending page.
Tesco’s malaise, says MSLGroup UK’s senior executive consultant Andrew MacDougal, stems from the universal truth that a company’s reputation is not so much constructed, or spun, as earned. “We think there is less such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reputation than just reputation itself,” he says.
However, social and digital media, as evidenced by the PR firm’s recent ‘Reputation: With or Without You’ report, have exacerbated the seriousness of company mistakes and the attention boards now give the media. The report found that 85 per cent of respondents across EMEA believe reputational consequences of their mistakes have become more serious because of social media.
“The industry as a whole is changing how it fits in the age of digital and social,” says MacDougal. “There’s no longer a news cycle, but a news stream.”
A company’s conduct has always been a barometer of its reputation; social merely makes that more transparent and apparent, says Martin Ayres, managing director of reputation management company FinchFactor London.
Caroline Skipsey, director at Igniyte, meanwhile says too many people only turn to reputation management in times of crisis, when a rolling programme should already be running. It takes a long time to build a good Googleable profile – and bad news, reported by reputable news sources, will attract more traffic and thus a higher search ranking.
Bad news, in real-time and preserved for posterity, is just a click away. Could, in the European Union, Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ process help?
Probably not, says Skipsey. It is both still a work in process and operates differently in different countries depending on their rules on reporting. As yet the legislation does not apply to brands and companies themselves, while existing legal recourse, such as defamation and privacy laws, already cover much of the area that the ‘right’ has been brought in to defend. Certain individuals have no doubt benefitted but anyone with a prominent public profile would be unlikely to benefit, she adds.
Perhaps the biggest change that the online world has brought to a brand’s reputation is the seemingly trivial but often damaging brickbats that either a brand inadvertently fires or receives; digital and social channels have created scores of consumer activists and analysts meaning brands must be ready to combat real-time world reaction.
In 2012 McDonald’s launched a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #McDStories, hoping consumers would share their happy Happy Meals; instead many chose to share their McDHorrorStories. And more recently, New York launched a #myNYPD campaign intended for users to share pictures of themselves with officers. This quickly became a way to share images of possible police aggression.
Taking aim at Apple’s misfortune over the iPhone 6 #Bendgate saga, LG took to Twitter to mock its rival. Unfortunately, the sharp-eyed noted that the offending tweet had actually been sent from an iPhone.
Others, such as Nestle, have found themselves the victim of an internet campaign. It quickly learnt how not to deal with social media activists when in 2010 angry fans swarmed its Facebook page in response to a Greenpeace palm oil campaign. Initially the brand administrator tried to quell the storm, threatening users who had adulterated the company logo to use as a profile picture that they would be deleted, causing a second – more public – backlash. The brand later admitted: “Social media: as you can see we’re learning as we go. Thanks for the comments.”
A company’s conduct has always been a barometer of its reputation; social merely makes that more transparent and apparent
In contrast, the response to an erroneous logo for bakery chain Greggs in August this year has been lauded as an exemplary use of managing – even transforming – your reputation online. Twitter users noticed that Google’s profile of Greggs carried the usual Wikipedia intro, but the logo was that of a Wikipedia parody site, reading ‘Providing shit to scum for over 70 years’ in place of the more sedate ‘Always Fresh. Always Tasty’.
As tweets piled up Greggs responded with one of its own: “Hey @GoogleUK, fix it and they’re yours!!! #FixGreggs”, accompanied by a photo of doughnuts. Cue a flurry of lol-filled tweets between baker, search engine and individuals, before the pronouncement from Google: #FixGreggs was now #FixedGreggs.
It was, says, MacDougal, a masterclass in real-time, modern day reputation management. “Quite often how you react will win you plaudits.”
The message, he says, is that companies need to listen more than ever, and think about how they respond. Hubris will only make a bad situation worse while a little humility or humour will go a long way.
Reputation management takes a darker turn where companies, individuals and brands try to ‘game’ the system, whether by bigging up their brands anonymously, ‘astroturfing’, or trolling a competitor. Although MacDougal says most big brands don’t want to go there for fear of potential reprisals – suggesting, as does Skipsey, that it is prevalent in the SME world – they are not immune.
A year ago Samsung was fined $340,000 by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission for orchestrating a bogus online campaign to boost its own products and disparage those of rival HTC. Around the same time New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman via Operation Clean Turf fined 19 companies a combined $350,000 for their roles in driving the posting of fake reviews to sites like Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.
“Astroturfing is the 21st century’s version of false advertising,” said Schneiderman at the time, adding that prosecutors have “many tools at their disposal” to put an end to it. The Australian consumer watchdog, the ACCC, has since warned it will heavily fine brands posting fake online reviews.
Consumer skepticism surrounding online reviews is at an all-time high, as a recent poll by the Chartered Institute of Marketing and YouGov in the UK shows. The survey showed that two-thirds (67 per cent) of consumers think techniques to hide negative content within search results are unethical, against just 38 per cent of marketers. Meanwhile, 91 per cent of marketers and 71 per cent of consumers believe that creating fake accounts to post reviews is unethical.
Sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and MoneySavingExpert – which trade on their reputation as trusted and independent consumer champions – are rallying. They are putting in place more robust systems to detect and deter misleading and nefarious activity, such as multiple posting from the same IP address. Yelp now flags directly to consumers where concerns over voracity exist.
Companies need to listen more than ever, and think about how they respond. Hubris will only make a bad situation worse
There is another growing phenomenon in the online review sphere, as yet far more prevalent in the UK than mainland Europe – that of consumer as ‘blackmailer’.
Savvy consumers are using the threat of the negative review as a tool to get upgrades or discounts, she says. And companies are “scared” not to respond. “You don’t always have to respond to every review. Far too many companies are jumping on the negative when they should also be encouraging the brand advocates and thanking them.” By just responding to those pointing out your flaws you run the risk of actually accentuating the negative, she adds. Skipsey also suggests that companies have in place strategies whereby – particularly in the retail and hospitality space – complaints are less likely to get online.
“People think that this is an online issue but it actually starts at the store, the hotel, over the phone,” she concludes. Online reputation management might increasingly require different skillsets of its practitioners but the desired end result remains the same as ever.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 12 November issue.