blogged briefly about this last week, but one of my areas of passion (and simultaneous astonishment) is the degree to which companies, associations and other organizations that depend upon the general public for their societal license to operate pay so little attention to what is said about them in the online environment. The seeds of discontent – for brands or issues – are sown online – and harvested in the online environment. Ask Procter and Gamble.
I read a recent article in Business Week entitled “Do Reputation Management Services Work? A new approach promises to help counter negative search results on the Web. Hiring one of these fixers may make nasty comments go away.” I listed the whole title because it is telling about what is wrong with their approach – and what the reality of the situation is that companies face.
The second article in this paragraph presents online issues and reputational management overly simplistically:
“Most reputation services work by tracking what’s written about a client on the Web, then doing search engine, promoting positive pages, and creating other sites that will push damaging references off the first pages of search results. The services are pitched as another tool companies can use in their PR and marketing efforts.”
This assumption is faulty. It postulates that if a company is having reputational issues, it is a “Google problem.”
In my eleven years on the agency side of things, I can’t tell you how many times I have met with clients who talk about their “Google problem.” It lost me a couple of accounts, but whenever I heard this explanation, after some research to discover the underlying problems, I usually countered with “Mr.//Mrs. Client, you don’t have a ‘Google problem,’ you have a ‘business problem.'” If you mess up your customer service – a business problem – you are guaranteed to find a manifestation in the online environment.
One of the more sophisticated approaches is used by www.Untied.com — a United Airlines attack site. With the clever
use of a URL that must bring them thousands of visits from people – like myself – who are poor typists, you see a site that looks a lot like the United Airlines site, but leads with headlines like:
“How Does UAL Stay in Business?”
“Legal Action Time”
“A Harrowing Story of UAL Mistreatment”
And on, and on. I think that you get the point. A WHOIS search helps me discover that this domain was grabbed in 1997 – eleven years ago.
While there was not a robust Google search in 1997 like there is today, somewhere, somehow, through Alta Vista, Northern Lights, or one of the search engines left on the ash heap of history, someone could and should have found this. The how, why and chronology of the site is here, but it’s apparent that United had a customer service and business problem that lead to an online problem. That online problem, has, in turn, become an offline problem that spilled over into the mainstream media. This article, written in 2000, Frustrated Airline Travelers Vent Anger on Web Sites, is just one of more than 100 article I found that mentioned Untied.com.
So what does this have to do with Business Week?
First, as I have said, most “Google problems” are really business problems that need to be addressed first by rectifying customer service complaints. Second, online reputation management (which I will cover in subsequent articles), takes a lot of time, patience and attention from senior management. You need to a) be aware of what is being said about you, b) determine if – or when – to respond, and c) calibrate your level of response to the threat and have complete transparency in doing so (see “Working Families for Wal*Mart”). To do it right, it’s more than a Google keyword alert – it takes a lot of time, and more often than not, if a response is involved, a lot of money.
So here’s the part of the article that made my blood run cold:
“But altering search results isn’t cheap. Several companies said the typical cost for a small business client starts at $1,000 a month… ReputationDefender, a two-year-old Menlo Park (Calif.) company that mainly markets to individuals, plans to introduce a service for companies that would cost a one-time fee of a few hundred dollars, according to founder Michael Fertik. Fertik and others are establishing a trade group, the Online Reputation Management Assn., to certify members and promote best practices, because no clear standards exist for what is and is not acceptable.
If a trade association is being founded my someone who thinks that you can justify an organization’s societal license to operate thinks that it will cost a “one time fee of a few hundred dollars,” those of us in the online reputation space
should be very worried.
Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 11 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world.