At a training session I recently attended, I could see a few people frowning when I said my work is about "managing corporate reputations". The trainer asked what most people probably had in mind: "so you work for companies who want to bury negative stories on the internet?" I answered that my job is to give strategic advice to companies wishing to enhance their reputation, but had nothing to do with tricking Google robots in pushing down negative search results!
However this misconception is quite widespread at the moment. Twitter and LinkedIn are buzzing with the words "reputation management", indifferently used to describe Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) tactics and strategic reputation management.
The truth is, these two approaches are radically different. While SEO tactics can be a great tool to develop awareness, they do a disservice to corporate reputations when they aim to "hide the negative". Here is why:
1. Bad comments may disappear, but bad experiences will stay
Bad online reviews or comments are the result of real stakeholder interactions. Reducing the audience of negative comments will not change the perceptions of those who have actually had negative experiences. If a business accumulates negative experiences, there is a high chance that it will lose its market share to the benefit of competitors who are doing a better job.
2. Reputation is built on good behaviour and good communications, not search algorithms
Building and managing reputation is certainly about influencing perceptions. But to date, no-one has found a better way to influence perceptions than to adopt genuinely good corporate practices. This means listening to your stakeholders, understanding them, and making sure that their concerns are integrated in your corporate strategy.
3. The internet does not forget
With online content and sources growing exponentially, high levels of stakeholder scrutiny, there is no guarantee that a negative story will not resurface. A single tweet and you could be back to square one.
4. Avoiding critics will not earn you trust
Great companies are those who are able to engage with their critics. Studies show that companies who are seen to resolve conflicts are more trusted than others. Even facing rumour and defamation, the responsible attitude is to share the right information that will debunk the negative content. See how Coca-Cola is handling rumours regarding its products for instance.
In short, companies should monitor and address their issues, as well as continuously engage with their stakeholders –including critics. This is the best possible way to advance their agenda and build their reputation.