online reputation management
I spoke on a panel one week ago organized by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in Connecticut. The topic was “Can They Really Say That About Me?” I was joined by terrific panelists….John Hines of Clark Hill (Online Reputation: Legal Perspective), Polly Wood of Reputation.com (Protecting Your Online Reputation), Dr. Pamela Newman of Aon‘s Newman Team (Insuring Reputation) and Stephen Schultze of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy (Policy Perspective on Reputation). We all had a terrific time learning from one another since we all approached reputation from different angles. I approached reputation from a company point of view, John from a legal point of view, Polly from an individual point of view, Pamela from an insurance perspective and Stephen from a policy angle. John Hines organized the event and we are hoping to take the show on the road to Chicago.
Stephen brought up a question that has been lingering in my mind since the session ended. He asked whether society was perpetuating a “reputation gap.” He posed the idea that there is a divide between those that can police their reputation and those that cannot. It costs money, time, resources and know-how to protect your reputation, build positive mentions to push down the negative, open new domains and populate social media to create good first impressions. The “have nots” do not have the same access to information and Internet savvy to protect their reputations, balance the positive with the negative or hire an online reputation management specialist to help better situate their reputations. Just yesterday I wrote on this blog that nearly $1.6 billion was spent in 2012 managing reputations online. With figures like this, Stephen Schultze has to be right asking whether there is a reputation gap. The answer is clearly “yes.” Perhaps some of these online reputation management companies should provide services pro bono for some of the unfortunate who are maligned online and do not know where to turn to for support.
As for me being in the reputation business myself, I do make it my business to help people whose reputations have been tarnished by explaining what they can do and where they might seek help. So I hope that I am doing my bit to narrow the reputation gap.
A quick note for a Saturday. In this article, I read that small and medium sized business spent nearly $1.6 billion in 2012 managing their reputations online. This figure is expected to reach more than $2.9 billion in 2017. I imagine that if you added in large sized businesses, you’d be closer to $4 billion. (Just estimating) in 2012. This confirms that there is an entirely robust online reputation management industry that has just gotten started. And the reasons behind this new cottage industry are strong when you take into consideration that nearly 94% of people do not move beyond the first page of Google or Bing to get what they were looking for. Last I had heard, the number was closer to 89% but it certainly is creeping up. I bet it hits 100% in no time.
As I mentioned, I am traveling in Asia to talk about social CEOs and generally spread the good word about our thought leadership and Weber Shandwick. It is so terribly interesting to present our research and learn what people have to say and listen to the kinds of questions they ask. Today in Shanghai someone asked me what type of emotional commitment a CEO has to make to become a social CEO. What a great question! It definitely takes an emotional commitment. Not only does a CEO have to commit time and resources but there is a genuine personal commitment as that goes hand in hand with being social. You are putting yourself on the line as well as your ego. It also takes courage. In our new upcoming research which we have not released yet, executives are quite aware that being a social CEO takes courage. It is not for the faint-hearted. However, one CEO reminded me that the CEO job is all about risk anyhow. True.
In addition, at a presentation yesterday in Beijing, someone mentioned that even if you cannot get your CEO to be social (meaning using social media in some shape or form), CEOs need to commit to “the intrinsic value of sociability.” He rightly said that sociability (whether online or not) should not be ignored in this business environment. It can make a significant difference. Smart advice.
I had a particularly interesting and rewarding week. It started in Minneapolis where my colleague and I spoke at a YPO/WPO event on managing a reputational/pr crisis and how to use social media to keep one’s reputation from getting tarnished. The audience of over 100 CEOs and presidents wanted advice on managing a crisis in this hyper-connected, turbulent and “gotcha” world. The person who was to introduce us was abit late because he was handling a crisis…which I thought was perfect timing! I hope I made the point that reputation management is a contact sport today.
While preparing for my talk, I was searching for something to say about how socio-political-local issues are more important than ever in managing reputation. I was barely in the state when I quickly learned about the upcoming vote on the Marriage Amendment. Companies are being asked to vote yeah or nay on gay marriage and from what I can tell, it is having a resounding impact on perceptions of business reputations in the state. This event is an extraordinary example of how business reputations are being shaped by their political citizenship. In case you are curious as to how some CEOs are taking a stand, read this entry on the General Mills blog, Taste. Here is an excerpt written by the head of global diversity and inclusion as to his company’s CEO, Ken Powell, who addressed employees:
“As readers of this may or may not know, Minnesota voters will be asked to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment in November. If passed, this amendment would define marriage in our home state’s constitution as being between one man and one woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. If defeated, Minnesota voters would send a strong message about our state’s view of the importance of inclusiveness and diversity.
Ken spoke only a few minutes – but his words spoke volumes.
He voiced our company’s opposition to the proposed marriage amendment, an initiative that makes our state less inclusive and reduces our company’s ability to attract and retain talent.
While, General Mills doesn’t normally take positions on ballot measures, this is a business issue that impacts our employees.
I am proud to see our company join the ranks of local and national employers speaking out for inclusion. We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of our employees or our state economy – and as a Minnesota-based company we oppose it.”
Also pretty impressive is that the company left all the comments from those in favor and those opposed to the marriage amendment on the blog on their corporate site. They are all heart-wrenching and some unbearably uncivil.
I was talking to a few colleagues and came to the conclusion that companies are now mirroring civil society. Many of the issues facing the nation or even the world at large are now the business of business — education, bullying, civil rights, etc. The public square and corporate corridor are becoming increasingly similar.
Years ago when I wrote my book on reputation recovery, I told how disgraced Tyco International waited until they had proved themselves before launching a new advertising campaign. I wrote:
“When it was time to formally declare that the recovery process was officially in place, new CEO Breen initiated two noteworthy advertising campaigns. The first introduced Tyco’s brand-new 13-person leadership team that replaced the entire previous executive team. The advertising targeted to Wall Street, legislators, and employees featured the following statement accompanied by individual executive’s signatures: ‘‘We signed on because we believe Tyco has a bright future. We signed below to show you we mean it.’’ The signatures underscored the point that these executives had personally signed up for the mission. The campaign underscored how Tyco’s new leadership team was standing shoulder to shoulder behind Tyco’s improving reputation. The 13-person team portrait also communicated that new leadership was focused on the team, not the individual. According to Jim Harman, Tyco International’s vice president of advertising and branding, ‘‘The message behind this campaign was that Tyco had hired senior managers with the highest level of integrity from diverse manufacturing companies.’’
The advertising served as a reminder to influential stakeholders that Tyco was well on its way to rebuilding the reputation it lost.
AIG has now joined these ranks. If you recall, AIG was the recipient of the largest government bailout during the recent economic crisis and was on the short end of the stick when it came to public outrage. Since the new CEO, Robert Benmosche took over in 2009, AIG rebuilt its business and began paying back its loans to the US government. No one believed they would do it. And yet just yesterday, the government sold off what was left of AIG securities for a surprisingly big profit of nearly $18 billion in profit. Although they launched this new YouTube campaign about their comeback several weeks ago with the tag line, “Thank you, America. We’re proud to be keeping our promise to stand by you,” their timing is right and I dare say they hit the right notes in the campaign.
It is not every day that I read an article several times over and then take notes. That is what I did after reading Graeme Trayner’s paper presented at the Annual Market Research Society Conference, March 2012. Its title is “Emblems and Shortcuts: Rethinking Corporate Reputation Research.” Graeme is a partner at Brunswick in opinion research and a fellow reputation-follower. I first heard his name when I found a wonderful research article about the concept of the “permanent campaign.”
I basically agree with his thinking on the state of reputation research – where it has been and where it needs to go. His overarching point of view is that current reputation research might be too mechanistic, rational and simplistic for how people shape perceptions about companies today. Yes, the current framework most commonly used is powerful because it easily reduces the many drivers of reputation to six or seven key dimensions such as financial performance, quality of products, leadership, etc. Despite its simplicity, that is the beauty of it. I think he is referring to some of the publically available frameworks from Harris Interactive, Reputation Institute and possibly Fortune’s Most Admired. I see his point that these methods make an enormous assumption that people are rational actors and make decisions about what companies to buy from based on these preordained reputation drivers. And, these frameworks do not take into account reality, that is, different stakeholders see companies differently (financial analysts do not view company reputations the same way as consumers or the media do). He posits that this way of thinking dilutes what is really happening today. On the other hand, I should add that the beauty of these frameworks are that they are mostly publically available and can serve as valuable guideposts to how companies are viewed. They serve a great benefit to companies looking to track broad perceptions over time, those without big budgets and those CEOs who do not take reputation as seriously as they should. These frameworks have their deficits and I do believe that most company leaders recognize that when taking advantage of them. The solution is to use them as snapshots but to really gauge reputation, a company needs to customize their own research.
Graeme calls for a newer approach that takes neuroscience and behavioral economics into consideration. Essentially he calls for greater attention to how mental shortcuts, symbols and what the crowd is thinking to help us make choices about companies. He calls for a fresh approach that takes into account “a series of interconnected associations and frames, rather than a static set of reputation drivers.” The world of perception is indeed one big network of images and loose connections, particularly when we are bombarded with so much information today.
There are many things he writes about that are important to think about when it comes to reputation (which is why I took notes to keep for myself). A few stood out when it comes to identifying the cues and symbols that help shape reputation perceptions.
· The idea that people use fast or slow thinking (he cites Kahneman, 2011) when it comes to forming opinions. Slow thinking is “deliberative and logical,” whereas fast thinking is what we do most of the time and involves embedding impressions and intuitions about companies and things in our minds. When I think about how impressions get shaped about companies and leaders for most people whose livelihood is not reputation, it often feels like “hearsay” or “half-truths” certainly do the trick. For example, JPMorganChase was a reputation champion until we heard about the $2 billion trading loss on May 10th. On May 9th, they were a leader and one day later, a laggard. For most people, they just heard something fleeting on the news and it became a permanent stain on their reputation. Who has the time to drill down into the facts?
· He also cites the idea posited by Robert Heath (2011) on low involvement processing. In essence, people are forming images without conscious awareness – “people are still taking in images, associations and messages from advertising, even if they are not fully engaged.” We can’t take it all in but we are taking it in at a low level. And these perceptions stick as well. I may never buy a Boeing aircraft but I form impressions through bits and pieces of scrap information.
· The part that I also like thinking about is the concept he cites about “social copying.” With the pervasiveness of the Internet today, people have access to what everyone else is thinking. That online reinforcement that everyone likes blue M&Ms further deepens one’s thinking about whether a company is a good one or not so good one. “Understanding the social ‘stickiness’ of aspects of a reputation is crucial to identifying how to evolve corporate profiles.” For this reason, in my view, online reputation management is so critical to managing reputation today.
He recommends some thoughtful ways to embed this thinking in corporate communications campaigns for the betterment of reputation. These are many of the things that we do every day in this field. We urge companies to find that one important “signature” initiative that we sometimes refer to as thought leadership and make it memorable, distinctive and impactful. A good example might be IBM’s Smarter Planet. Graeme calls this an “emblematic initiative.” Applying muscle to this initiative is critical. His other suggestion to corporate communicators is to start with an issue that tackles a societal problem. The key is making that known and making sure it aligns with the business. A good example is TOMS shoes, a shoe company that donates a pair to a person in need every time someone buys from them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that when I was looking for summer soles.
Take a read when you want to slow-think and be deliberative. It feels good.
I was glad to find these facts about online reputation management companies this week. I’ve often wondered about the market for them as they have boomed in recent years. An estimate for spending on online reputation is provided by BIA/Kelsey — $1.6 billion for 2011 and an expectation of $5 billion by 2015. This is for small and medium-sized businesses. My sense is that this is the market because one or two negative customer mentions or reviews can really wipe dollars off that precious bottom line. Fixing your online reputation is not easy. If it were, everyone would have a pristine reputation. In fact, it takes years for a reputation to build or recover — just think about BP and how painful that recovery has been although they are slowly making progress. Even when hiring an online reputation management company, it takes at least a year to see change from what I have been told. And that might be optimistic. In fact, I went to check out an uncomplimentary mention about an executive I know that first appeared at least four years ago. It was still there although it had a few more positive mentions ahead of it. But four years is a long time to correct something online. This executive did not hire an online reputation management and just took her chances.
A quote that surfaced in the article where I found this spending estimate caught my attention, “If the Internet is the Wild West, then online reputation management is Dodge City.” Whoah.
Is it me or is there an article every single day about how to manage your online reputation, particularly if you are a job seeker. I know that I get Google Alerts as to when anything surfaces on online reputation but I don’t think I can read any more. For instance, today I got another one and I took a deep sigh. How many times do people have to read that they should do a Google or Bing search of their name to see how they are being talked about online? How many times do people have to read about buying their name on a domain site or be positive online and off? Oh well. I think I figured out the answer. “A lot.” Obviously people do not follow these simple rules because otherwise there wouldn’t be a demand for this information. And from my experience with job seekers, many people do not think twice about how often employers check out candidates online (I think that 70% of employers check online).
So I get it. But I can still ask the question. I guess it is just me.
In a piece I wrote for The HuffingtonPost for 2012, I forecasted that reputation blackmail would show its hand this year. Lo and behold, a front page article in yesterday’s paper headlined “Hackers-For-Hire Are Easy to Find.” The article had to do with two feuding brothers from Kuwaiti who were suing one another over business they held. One of the billionaire brothers found someone to hack into his brother’s account and post online all his brother’s personal emails including finances, legal affairs, pharmacy bills and everything else that you can imagine gets sent and received from one’s personal account. The cost: $400. Hackers to hire are that cheap and apparently easy to find. One of the reasons there has not been much on this topic where reputations can be easily lost is that people do not want to report this type of reputation blackmail and generate even more attention.
In this instance, the one brother hired Invisible Hacking Group located in China and here is how it works:
“It requested the target person’s email address, the names of friends or colleagues, and examples of topics that interest them. The hackers would then send an email to the target that sounded as if it came from an acquaintance, but which actually installed malicious software on the target’s computer. The software would let the hackers capture the target’s email password.”
You get the picture.
Reputation blackmail presents a very scary scenario. Not only is privacy damaged but reputations which take a long time to rebuild get decimated. Reputation protection can only go so far. Risk management and reputation warfare gets more complicated by the day.
1. The World Economic Forum released its report on the top risks facing the world in 2012. Social unrest and income inequity were at the top. Natural disasters such as the earthquake in Japan were also high on the risk list. And as pointed out, one risk affects another creating a domino effect. “The Internet, meanwhile, can magnify and spread the effects of a disaster in other ways. Rumors, even if incorrect, spread quickly on social networking sites — sometimes more rapidly than emergency services can communicate accurate information. As word of disasters like the terror attacks of Sept. 11 or the earthquake in Japan spreads globally, consumers hunker down in front of their computer screens or televisions, rather than going about their daily lives. This increases the economic effects of a crisis, even in areas far removed from the source.” Disasters such as the horrific earthquake, tragic 9-11, death-defying financial crisis, massive oil spills and nasty ash clouds coming from Iceland all heighten other risks in some way. And risk spells reputation damage depending on how a company or country responds and solves the problem.
2. The report from WEF also mentioned that risks are on the horizon as leadership transitions are in full force this year. It is not just the U.S. presidential election that poses risk and stirs up emotional angst. There are leadership transitions underway this year in France, Russia and China as well. Add to that the sudden transitions in the Arab world this past year and we see upheaval and uncertainty. When CEO transitions are underway, the first few months can be risky so as we see world leaders change, tighten your seatbelts. The public will be more socially active than ever. We’ve already seen that in Russia.
3. I’ve written here about rankings and so-called “worst of” lists where companies, CEOs and environmental records are put on notice that they are not making the grade. In most Januarys, TripAdvisor.com comes out with its “dirtiest hotels” in the world. No more. The CEO Stephen Kaufer says, “We want to stay more on the positive side, so we’ll continue to feature the best destinations, the top hotels. We’re slicing and dicing the ‘best of’ in different ways this year, more than focusing on the negative.” Although the article where I learned about this says there were potential legal considerations and competitive reasons for abandoning the January list, it also mentioned that the original “worst of” list was done for PR reasons and that TripAdvisor is less interested in that now. Perhaps there is a reputation-reason afoot here. There is so much negativity online on some of these sites and it is so easy to find what you are looking for that a list of the 10 worst may be hardly worth alienating visitors to your site. Everyone worries about the detractors and the praisers. Maybe it is time to just worry about the average site visitor who does not want snarky comments and lists, but just the plain old straight forward facts to plan a plain old relaxing get-away.