6: Managing Your Online Reputation

The author defines three "areas" of reputation that require attention: the reputation of the company, the reputation of executives, and the reputation of products. Information about all three areas is already online, much of it posted by others. You have a better chance of maintaining a positive reputation if you participate in the discussion.

Of critical importance is that you understand that reputation is what people actually think of you - which is not always what you wish they would think about you. (EN: The author does not stress this quite enough: you do not control public opinion, though you can attempt to influence it.)

Your online reputation is a consolidation of "data points" that include both your firm's publications (company Web site, press releases), information from the traditional media, and information from any person who cares to post a review or make a comment about you. The last has a great deal more influence and credibility than the former two.

This is not new, but the electronic medium makes information harder to control or conceal. A search engine enables a person to pull up every news article written about your firm in the past several years (and further), which would have required significant effort before the Internet. When people mention you to their friends, the whole world can hear what they say - and because their comments are stored electronically, they will remain online indefinitely.

Your Online Reputation

Reputation is said to exist in three states of perception:

  1. Good. A person of firm with a good reputation can easily be found online. It has many connections with people, fans, friends, and followers, and a constant stream of information is published about them, generally in a positive way.
  2. Bad. A person or firm with a bad reputation is also easy to find. While they may not have many connections, many people are talking about them in a negative way, such that anyone looking for information is deluged with negative remarks.
  3. Invisible. A person or firm may be largely invisible if they are not active in the social media, and if no-one is talking about them at all. Some firms regard this as a plus - better in any case than having a bad reputation; but people in the community regard it as a negative - in that nobody thinks you're worth talking about at all - and that you may in fact be an impostor.

Again, your reputation is the opinion others have of you, not the opinion you have or attempt to promote about yourself. If you have a company Web site, but nobody links to it or mentions you in social channels, you are still invisible. If you do not have an online presence but others are speaking about you online, then you have a reputation.

The author assert that "you'd be surprised" if you had the ability to be notified every time someone searches on your name: it's common for customers to research a firm online if they are considering buying a product, candidates if they are considering applying for work, vendors if they are considering selling to you, bankers who are considering your application for credit. People will even use the online channel to research other people: friends, business contacts, family members, and romantic interests will look up your name to see what others are saying.

In general, you can expect that any time two people meet except by accident, one or both have "Googled" the other party in advance. Especially with mobile devices, it's possible to look into someone seconds before they meet, or even during the course of an encounter. For the most part, people skim the first page or two, investing only a few seconds to form an idea - which means that the most popular or most recent comments have more bearing. In other instances, they will be much more diligent in ferreting out information.

The author states "there are still people" who really don't understand that what they post online is exposed to a great many people - they may have intended it for a few, or realized that it would be visible to friends and followers, but most sites are searchable by a broader audience, and anything can be reposted or shared to a wider group. They also do not recognize the longevity of information online: a remark that was made a decade or more ago is still out there, waiting to be discovered.

When considered thus, it becomes clear that you should take a proactive approach to managing your online reputation - to make sure that what is said is accurate, and to encourage conversation in a positive direction. Or at the very least, to be aware of what is being said, so that you understand the impression others have of you, even before you meet.

The Three-Step Process for Managing an Online Reputation

While you do not control your online reputation, you have the ability to influence it, and as the channel is becoming increasingly influential, it's well worth the effort to do so. To that end, the author proposes a three-step process for managing your online reputation: to listen to what people are saying, develop and follow a plan for how to respond, and to have a system in place to measure your online relevance.

Step One: Listen

The listening process consists of putting together a list of topics you wish to monitor - the name of your firm, your product name, the names of key executives - and regularly check to see what is being said. There are various tools and services that mean to facilitate searching the various sites and services, and others that will provide periodic reports or even e-mail alerts in real time. (EN: The author mentions a few by name, but these will change over time.)

Once you have a set of listening applications in place, there must be a process for reviewing what is uncovered. This needs to be frequently, as a negative comment can fester very quickly. In large operations, there may be dedicated staff who monitor the online conversations 24/7 - for smaller firms, checking once per day should be the responsibility of someone.

Of importance is to let people, especially employees, be aware you are listening - the fact that any mention of the company name will be noticed will make them more cautious and discrete.

In addition to monitoring for reputation, put in place a system to route information to people that might benefit from it. Comments from a competitor should be routed to sales, complaints or suggestions to product development. (EN: This may depend on culture. In some firms, panic erupts when one remark is made, and it's likely wise to refrain unless you notice a trend.)

Another tip: you can put in place listening applications to see what people are saying about your industry or product class in general, or what they are saying about your competitors and their products. If you are listening and they aren't, you have a decisive advantage. Of course, if they are listening and you aren't, then the advantage is theirs.

Step Two: Engage

Resist the urge to react to every comment made until you have in place an engagement strategy that defines your objectives. Firms that react instantly, without forethought, often react unnecessarily, harshly, and with consequences that do themselves more harm than good.

Companies should also be cautious in their approach. Once listening applications are set up, try lurking for a while: listen to what people are saying without participating. Then, decide whether any response is necessary at all. Then, decide what kind of response will have the desired effect without unintended side-effects. Then respond. Then, stick around to see what kind of effect it has: Are negative comments retracted? Are more negative comments made? Is conversation completely squelched at your intrusion? There are no standard protocols or best methods as yet: to respond or ignore, comment publicly or contact privately, so you will need to experiment to see what works best.

In general, the idea is to engage your critics individually - whenever something negative is said, get them to deal with you directly and privately to settle the issue rather than complaining publicly - as well as to thank those who share positive experiences with the public.

An aside: the author mentions the importance of writing "like a human being" in social media. Companies have a reputation for being soulless entities forwarding a mercenary agenda, and many people resent the condescending, manipulative "corporate" voice. Being sincere and candid, apologize and use a bit of humor when appropriate, goes a long way toward establishing credibility as a genuine participant in social media rather than an unwelcome intruder.

Another aside: some firms have taken to using phone calls to reach out directly to a person who makes a negative remark. The author sees this as a good tactic, as people who communicate online are often socially awkward and easily intimidated by more direct means of communication and you can catch them at a time they are not prepared to respond with factual information supporting their claim - and there is no record of what you say by phone, unlike a threatening e-mail or nasty comment in a public forum that others will see.

(EN: What the author does not mention, and what is of critical importance, is that your primary interest in handling negative feedback is to address the problem that caused the customer to make a negative remark, not to beg or bully someone your actions have offended into withdrawing their complaint about the way you have treated them.)

Step Three: Monitor

Monitoring is largely the same as what was done in the first step (listening), only it is an ongoing process that tracks the rise and fall of your online reputation. This enables you to recognize where an incident may have impacted your reputation and react accordingly, or to assess whether your own actions have had a positive or negative impact.

Naturally, many firms have rushed in with online reputation management (ORM) systems that propose to do so, but they do not necessarily measure the right things. Measuring quantity is fairly simple: the number of mentions in social media (blogs, tweets, Facebook posts), chopped up in various ways and measured over time.

The basic metrics give you only a vague sense of the volume of conversation: you also need to consider whether each mention is positive, negative, or neutral; how many people are likely to see a comment in a given source; how much credibility the commenter has; if the comment is part of a thread that contains other comments that support or contradict it; whether the comment has any relevancy. If you fail to consider these factors, a raw count of mentions may not be meaningful.

The author mentions that "what gets measured gets done." If you cannot quantify your reputation in some way, it will likely be dismissed by numbers-minded executives in your firm. A vague sense that your reputation is good or bad does not motivate them to allocate budget. It's also important to share these metrics as widely as possible - the author mentions a dashboard and an internal e-mail newsletter to keep reputation on the radar.

The Tension Between Online Reputation and Privacy

One potentially difficult concept for managers is that the online channel brings together the professional and personal areas of an individual's life that used to be, and still sometimes are, perceived as being entirely separate. Which is to say, it was easier for people to pretend that they were separated, and attempt to control exactly what others knew about them.

The notion of "cross-group infection" refers to the problem of information intended for one group of people being accessed by others for whom it was not intended. For example, a person may have a Facebook account that includes both personal friends and business colleagues - and one of their friends may tag them in photos from a vacation that their professional contacts would find offensive or inappropriate.

(EN: Even before the Internet, it was common to know what a person does for a living - it's the second question in the ritual introduction, after asking a person their name - so the notion this is "new" and the notion that managers are not required to deal with this differently than in the past are both entirely wrong.)

In American culture, specifically, people had previously been encouraged to refrain from disclosing private details about their personal lives. Social media takes the exact opposite stance, encouraging full disclosure and transparency, and many are not comfortable with the prospect.

The same is true of organizations as well: while many are ostensibly concerned with the spread of rumors and false information, they are deeply horrified that the truth about their behavior will be exposed, and wish to retain their secrets and control those who would relate this information to others who might not have been aware of it.

There's an aside about differences in generations - the typical old/young dichotomy - and especially in the present age where the management is of an older generation that is less comfortable with transparency feels the need to control younger workers who see no problem with it.

The author refers to the way in which companies use social media to dig up dirt on employment candidates. In "the old days" a person presented a resume they composed and provided references they selected - but with the Internet and social technology, it is harder to cover up unflattering information or forge credentials. This goes back to the beginnings of computer technology, where databases could be compiled and searched to do background checks on employees to confirm or discover information. Now, anyone can do so in archives that are accessible at little to no cost.

One of the drawbacks is that information online may be unreliable: a candidate may suffer for some indiscreet comment someone else made about them (the example of a girl who made a post about a boy she thought was cute, and friends posted comments that revealed his sexual history), or from the intentional smear campaign by a personal enemy (a detailed example is given of a vindictive woman who used social media to slander her ex, with exaggerations and falsehoods that he has repeatedly had to discuss and explain to employers).

A few other examples underscore the problem of over-reliance on social media: it ultimately leads you to prefer candidates who are not active in social media, or about whom damaging information is concealed. In this instance, a candidate active in social media, including some unflattering information posted by his college friends, was rejected in favor of another candidate who had little information online but a serious drug problem and a criminal record that were not revealed online.

(EN: There is also the question of whether using this information creates liabilities. Take for example discrimination. It's common practice to refrain from placing, or considering, information on a resume about race, religion, politics, gender, or age - and the company could claim that it did not know these things. A company who leverages social media cannot feign ignorance when someone claims to have been excluded due to any of these factors.)

For a manager looking to hire individuals with social media skills, online relevancy scores can be helpful in discovering how well-connected and influential a candidate is in the social media. Some services already aggregate content and score individuals based on their volume and frequency of content posted, the breadth of their network, and how influential they are.

Celebrity Status

Ultimately, the effect of social media on average people is that they have obtained a level of publicity and recognition - most are not as famous or renowned as celebrities in the mass media, but they are certainly not the invisible and private people they might once have been.

The same is true for organizations and brands: you are not unknown in markets where you have not campaigned, and the sins of your past are laid bare for all to see - you cannot contain or control the flow of information, and must instead accept that these details are out there, and come to terms with it.