The evolution of reputation management

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Missive Junior Consultant Dom Edge discusses the importance of reputation management within the increasingly frenetic online environment.

Change is one of the few constants in the world of communications. In the face of the digital revolution, ‘age of information’ and the spread of the so-called fake news agenda, the PR industry finds itself juggling a plethora of new practices to balance alongside the more traditional and must remain both adaptive and responsive.

For the most part, as the PRCA’s PR and Communications Census 2018 addresses, the industry is flourishing, now valued £13.4 billion, increasing in diversity and finding its practitioners better paid. There are certainly challenges in dire need of improvement, namely the antiquated gender pay gap, but the picture is overwhelmingly positive; PR is purposeful, valued and powering ahead in its growth despite economic uncertainty.

One takeaway that certainly resonated, however, is the increasing perceived importance of reputation management. For the first time since the conception of the PRCA’s Census, professionals have deemed this more important than search engine optimisation (SEO). But why?

Unless you’ve been living with your head under a rock recently, you may have noticed a few high-profile brands failing to maintain a good image in the face of mounting public pressure. Facebook has been humiliated by Congress following the Cambridge Analytica scandal; TSB lost consumer trust as a result of poor communication during a technology failure; and finally, the CEO of Sainsbury’s was caught on camera singing an untimely tune during a merger.

The criticism pointed at these brands has been coming from multiple directions and channels, with social media bringing brand access to whole new levels. Bad publicity spreads quicker than ever before; companies often find a barrage of accusations coming instantly after a story breaks, as opposed to waiting for the next day’s headlines. In addition to this increased visibility, industries are more tightly regulated and may end up sleepwalking into fines and penalties, something that’s likely to become even more prevalent come the introduction of GDPR in May. In summary, companies are beginning to lose control of the agenda, and find themselves increasingly with their backs to the wall.

Conversely, there are still some companies that are managing their reputations with an expert hand, even in times of crisis and ridicule. KFC is an oft-cited example of this in recent times, but one entirely well deserved. After a well-publicised chicken shortage which more than ruffled the public’s feathers, KFC sprang to action with a self-deprecating apology and a full-page advert featuring a rearrangement of the letters in its famous logo and a tongue-in-cheek strapline (‘A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal’). This quick thinking helped the brand not only get back on its feet, but also turned bad publicity into a finger lickin’ good story.

What’s particularly salient about the rise of reputation management, however, is that it points to a shift in where consumers seek trust in companies. Whilst successful SEO bumps brands up in search engines, good reputation management can result in 5-star reviews on Facebook pages, engaged discussion and higher follower numbers. In a competitive online environment, it can also mean the difference between being a well-known brand and one confined to the digital wastepaper basket.

SEO is by no means in decline and it must remain a comprehensive element in any marketing strategy worth its salt. With the rise of social media, however, reputation management has become increasingly complex and challenging to master. It takes years to build a strong brand reputation, but, in this increasingly frenetic online environment, just days to ruin it.

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