18 minute read
What Is Reputation Management?
Updated on March 26, 2021 by Kent Campbell
Reputation management is the effort to influence what and how people think of a brand or person when viewed online. Put another way, character is who you are reputation is whom other people think you are, and today reputation is based mainly on what artificial intelligence systems like Google portray about you rather than the first-person experience.
Reputation management goes by a variety of names — online reputation management (ORM), internet reputation management, impression management, rep management, brand perception, or brand reputation management. Whatever you call it, the goal is to shape public perception about a person or business.
This blog post will answer some of the most common questions regarding reputation management.
- How to manage a reputation
- What is reputation management
- Who controls brand reputation?
- Can online reputation be managed?
- We’ll first provide a more detailed explanation of reputation management, which will demonstrate just how important a good reputation is.
- Second, we’ll demonstrate the amount of control you have over your reputation.
- Finally, we’ll float the question, can reputation be managed?
Everyone can benefit from learning more about the topic, whether you are just starting to build a personal brand or are in charge of public relations for a major corporation. If your company’s reputation is at risk, then grasping the basics of reputation management is critical for your business’s ongoing survival.
If you want to shape your own personal reputation, then knowing what’s at stake, who’s in control and how to influence people’s perceptions starts with the same foundational question: What is reputation management?
Definition of reputation management
Here is our definition of reputation management:
Reputation management is the effort to influence what and how people think of a brand or person.
The above definition covers what reputation management is at its core. But of course, there is much more to it. In this section, we’ll build out this nascent definition of reputation management by explaining seven critical aspects:
1. Reputation management happens mostly online
You cannot control what a person thinks. But you can control what they see, which in turn shapes the way they think.
A vast amount of communication happens online. We meet friends, we solve disagreements, we discover new businesses, and we read the news. We even spend our leisure time online. It’s inevitable, therefore, that reputation management happens mostly in the online space; in fact, the terms reputation management and online reputation management are now virtually synonymous.
So reputation management happens online because that's where the majority of our communication happens. But there's another reason as well, in the online world one doesn't focus on changing minds individually, instead arbiters of reputation like Google, Yelp, online publications and YouTube are often targeted.
2. Reputation affects sales and marketing
Reputation management as a practice resides within the wide world of sales and marketing. Why? Because what people think of a brand influences everything about that brand. It's nearly impossible to sell a product to a clientele that doesn't trust or believe in your brand.
With a good reputation management plan, you can clear the way for positive messages to have the maximum effect. The better your reputation, the better your conversion rate.
3. Reputation is essential for a business’s survival
We’re not overstating the case when we write that reputation management is essential for a company’s survival. Enron vanished in the wake of corruption and the ensuing public relations backlash. Other giants like BP, Wells Fargo, and United Airlines have been able to withstand reputation blowups, but not without serious costs.
These are all examples of how the emergence of online communication platforms has made reputation more delicate. Whereas before people who had a bad experience with a business may have only told a few close friends, now they have the ability to publish their views online, where they can reach thousands, even millions of people. These days, a single badly handled situation can quickly plunge a company into bankruptcy.
As you may remember, in the fall of 2017, officers forcibly removed a passenger from United Airlines flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. Following the massive negative public exposure, investors watched in horror as United Airlines hemorrhaged nearly a billion dollars in market cap value.
United Airlines is still flying the skies, but not without a permanently marred reputation. Other companies — smaller ones, or less capably equipped ones — would simply crash and burn in the wake of this kind of reputation disaster.
4. Reputation is important both for personalities and businesses
We've mostly focused on reputation management as it applies to businesses thus far, but it’s important for individuals too. It’s an area of interest for the billionaire hedge fund manager attempting to cover up an extramarital dalliance gone public. It’s critical for the singer who accidentally made a big real estate photography mistake even bigger - in fact it coined a new term, the Streisand Effect.
Since personalities often are businesses, it makes sense that they would benefit from reputation management. Most people in the modern world cannot live their lives in anonymity. If people know your name, they'll Google your name. It’s just what people do.
They're not just Googling your name. They're also reading your business’ reviews and talking about your brand on social media. With all of these different channels at play and, honestly, ways to quickly trash your reputation, it’s essential to take an active stance to show your best side online. The image that is portrayed when your name or company is typed into a search engine can help or harm you. People are binary in their judgement - here is often no in-between.
Those of us without an outsize personality or billions to our name can sometimes afford to manage our reputations ourselves, it's called DIY reputation management. We're good to go after posting a flattering photo on Facebook, an Instagram highlights reel or a resume on LinkedIn that only slightly exaggerates our finer points. People do it everyday, especially influencers.
Individuals with more at stake — like a money-making personality or billions to their name — may need to bring in the big guns.
5. About 87% reverse a purchase decision if there are reputation issues
As we’ve pointed out, if your reputation is down the tubes, so is your business. In fact, 87% of customers will reverse a purchase decision after viewing negative content about a brand or product online.
It’s no surprise, then, that businesses shell out tens of thousands of dollars a month in an effort to preserve or improve their reputations. If you knew you could prevent a potentially devastating crisis, wouldn’t you pay the comparatively small price for a good reputation?
As search engines have all but replaced word-of-mouth referrals, online reputation management has become an industry that purports to exercise massive sway over public opinion. A company’s reputation is its Yelp rating, New York Times takedown or viral Colbert burn. What appears at the top of the search results is what people see, believe and respond to.
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6. Can reputation management be abused?
Yes. Reputation management is abused for nefarious purposes. Like nearly everything in life, reputation management has an ethical dark side. You can’t simply decide that reputation management is inherently evil or good. It’s used for both. Reputation X is one of the good guys by the way.
One Business Insider article takes a bazooka shot at reputation management, starting with the headline: “Inside The Sleazy World Of Reputation Management, Where People Pay To Control What You See On The Internet.”
The article’s opening salvo paints a heart-stopping picture of basement-dwelling, socially deprived desperadoes, eager to corrupt the world with their dark arts.
And, yes, reputation management does have its abusers, just as there are those who misuse the natural beauty of a stick by beating someone on the head with it.
Some thieving types will hire reputation management practitioners to cast aspersions on a company so the masterminds can short its stocks and make out like actual bandits. Others will take a flamethrower to a CEO’s reputation, again benefiting from the subsequent drop in stock prices.
Thankfully, the bulk of reputation management is not bad.
7. Is reputation management a legitimate practice?
Yes. Reputation management exists, in part, because people are more likely to believe, share and spread negative news than they are positive news. We, as humans, have evolved to react to threats, which has developed a "negativity bias." Essentially, bad news gets more clicks, more attention, and, ultimately more revenue for the media outlets. That's why a single misstep can snowball to have lasting effects on your reputation.
Like a garden, reputations need tending. Yet many businesses lack the time, expertise or knowledge to touch up their Wikipedia article, polish up the About Us page, or solicit a few more positive reviews on review sites like GlassDoor, Yelp, or Google Reviews.
A local mom and pop coffee shop may need professional insight into improving their Yelp ratings. An online retailer may want help sprucing up their Amazon product descriptions and ratings, and so on.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to reputation management. There are, however, a number of legitimate, ethical, and effective tools to navigate the process.
Who's in control of your reputation?
Perhaps the most salient reputation management question to answer is Who’s in control of your reputation? This is the single biggest sticking point in understanding reputation management, and it’s a huge reason why reputation mismanagement is so rampant. Misunderstanding this crucial first point leads to a multitude of sins, false steps, confusion, and outright blunders.
A brand or individual has no control over what people think. But they do have a degree of control over what people see and can therefore manage what people think.
Although there is no scientific way to analyze what portion of your reputation is under your control, here's a helpful way to visualize it. If your reputation is the large blue box below, the portion that you control is the white box in the lower left—and it’s very small.
What do you control about your reputation?
In terms of your business’s reputation, you control your business’s or personal brands' (your own) actions. And it’s possible that even on that point, your control is limited. A restaurant may have a reputation problem for years because a waiter was having a bad day.
Businesses have a lot of moving parts. Many businesses have a lot of employees, each of whom has some degree of autonomy in how they function, what they say and how they live their personal lives.
Though you control some things in running a business, you don’t control everything. You can’t. And that leaves your reputation in the hands (more precisely, the minds) of those who perceive your company. But when a negative review hits Yelp, you may have some control over who sees it and how often. It's even possible to delete some negative reviews.
The actions that you undertake as a business leader do shape reputation in some way. If, for example, you decide to embezzle millions of dollars, put cyanide in your donuts or openly support weapons smugglers, these actions will have a marked impact on your reputation.
What don’t you control about your reputation?
Even if your actions are cautious, circumspect and limited in their scope of impact, your reputation takes on a life of its own in the public mind. Your competitor across the street often has more sway over your business than you do (fake reviews for example).
To make this point, let’s use a simple example. Let’s say you run a spaghetti restaurant. Quality, sanitation, employee training, recipes, ambiance — you’ve worked hard to make sure that everything is perfect, that your sauce is well-seasoned and that your spaghetti is piping hot when served.
One day, you serve a customer your tastiest spaghetti dish at the normal serving temperature of 113 degrees. The customer, unfortunately, was expecting their plate of noodles to be 119 degrees. Early in life, they had a horrible experience with colder-than-expected pasta, a memory that is now mixed up with being cut off from their family, experiencing poverty and losing their hair. The customer rises up from the table in a rage, accusing you of being the worst spaghetti restaurant in the entire Western Hemisphere, spitting their spaghetti back into the dish, and causing all the other restaurant patrons to gaze at their own noodles with horror and revulsion.
Instantly, your restaurant’s reputation is suspect. Even if the other customers enjoyed the dish, their experience at the restaurant is forever tainted by the customer with some unfortunate life experiences and maladjusted expectations. Your reputation may suffer.
Yes, it’s an extreme example, but the point is you had no idea, let alone control, over the individual with the troubled family history and androgenetic alopecia.
Take another example — the explosion of an engine on a Southwest aircraft.
The incident tragically resulted in the death of one passenger. Upon investigation, it was found that the faulty engine was compromised due to metal fatigue, an issue that was beyond the scope of even the most rigorous routine inspections.
Southwest experienced a surge in negative public interest after the incident.
What did people see when they searched for information related to Southwest?
Search results like these are obviously not beneficial to a brand because they damage reputation capital. But how much control did Southwest have over the entire affair — from the metal fatigue to the tragedy itself, to the ongoing investigation and fallout? Very little.
The development of reputation happens in much the same way as the process of communication:
- You, as the sender, communicate your reputation through your employees, branding, messaging, web presence and all the other elements of a brand.
- The receiver, which is any individual in the general public, decodes this message according to the specific channel of communication.
- Once in the receiver’s mind, the message is layered with all the life experiences, interpretations, biases and other complex issues that affect how a person understands information.
You can see how the communication of a reputation could easily go off the rails at any point in the process. But there's good news, soon after the incident it will mainly reside on the servers of Google, Bing, and YouTube where a reputation manager can do her work by decreasing visibility.
Search engines and social media act as the public memory, and they can be manipulated to some degree.
As advanced and effective as many reputation management techniques are, it’s not possible to change how people think. Therefore, reputation management focuses on what people see.
What can you control about your reputation?
There are some active steps you can take to attempt to control what people see about you online.
In an effort to maintain a positive online reputation, you can:
- Assess your current situation: Start by simply Googling yourself or your company. Take note of what comes up and whether your search results are mostly positive or negative. There are reputation monitoring tools to help as well.
- Monitor your search results: Keep a careful watch on what is being said about you online. Respond to comments whether they are positive or negative. If they are negative, work to improve the problem to avoid repeating it in the future.
- Create positive content: Focus on the channels you can control (your website, blog, social media pages) to create positive content. Reviews can often be improved fairly quickly using review management tools.
- Focus on your brand: Your overall brand is key here. Be transparent, and work from the inside out to make sure that your brand is what you say it is online.
Can reputation be managed?
Can reputation be managed? What you can adjust is what people see, which then affects how they perceive you and the reputation they form of you.
So, we offer a qualified yes. Reputation can be managed.
Here are some of the sources of reputation problems that reputation management does attempt to deal with:
- Negative news articles – News articles are often the first thing that people see when they Google your business’s name or peruse their news feeds. Even though people are aware that fake news exists, we still tend to believe what we read in the news.
- Negative online images – Celebrities and ordinary citizens alike have been the subject of leaked photos or other negative online imagery. Thankfully, there are legal guidelines that stipulate when such images may be removed from search indexes.
- Wikipedia – Wikipedia is the cultural default for information on virtually every conceivable subject. Unfortunately, Wikipedia can be biased and unreliable. Reputation management must pay close attention to this site that consistently ranks high in the search engines.
- Blog posts – Anyone can write anything they want about anyone they want unless they are clearly defaming an entity. The result is a riot of misinformation and confusion. This is another arena in which reputation management can and does exercise substantial impact.
- Ripoff reports and scam sites – Like malicious blogs, some review sites are nothing more than conduits of complaint for disaffected consumers (or worse, malicious reputation destroyers). If these reports go mainstream, they can destroy brands.
- Review sites – Review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, and others exist to help the consumer make guided choices based on what other customers have experienced. But what if a single malcontented consumer ruins an otherwise great company with a negative review? In an ideal world, the number of good reviews would counteract the outlier, but sometimes a single negative review can really hurt a small business.
- Social media – Thankfully, social media has a shorter shelf life than anything else in this list, but it still matters. Social media is the method of choice for people recommending brands, spreading gossip, airing complaints and criticizing public figures.
Search results can linger for years. A single reputation blowup will fester in the search index and in people’s minds for such a long time that the false news ossifies into gospel truth. It lingers, that is, until something changes it. And that’s where the science of reputation management comes into play.
Using techniques from the field of search engine optimization, cognitive psychology, user behavior, and human-computer interaction (HCI), reputation management companies can restore equilibrium back to search results, review sites, information portals and other sources of publicly accessible information.
Reputation can be managed. The scope of management is limited since we can’t control what people think. But we can control what people see online to a large extent, and that can go a long way toward preserving a positive reputation and keeping a business alive.
How can I monitor my reputation online?
Reputation management is the effort to influence what and how people think of a brand or person when viewed online. There are many different reputation management strategies that will allow you to maintain or improve your online reputation.
You may choose to manage your reputation on your own or with the help of a reputation management company. Either way, you will work to monitor and improve your reputation over time, often starting with improving your search engine results.
Setting up Google Alerts is a great first place to start monitoring your reputation online. You will see when negative news articles, blogs, reviews or images are posted, and what people are saying about you on social media.
What if what I find is bad? How can I improve my online reputation?
Luckily, reputation can be improved over time. But it takes a lot of hard work and consistency to achieve results. If you are facing a full-blown crisis or a bout of negative publicity, there are steps you can take to turn your search results around and rebuild your online reputation.
The road to reputational recovery can be simplified into three steps:
- Analyze the damage: Take a moment to assess the extent of the damage. Before you take any actions to respond to the damage, track existing and new press, research what is being said about you, and touch base with any investors or stakeholders.
- Regain control: This is the time to turn the situation around. Regaining control often starts with an apology. Issue a statement apologizing for any wrongs that may have been committed, and continue to update the situation as it progresses.
- Create a recovery roadmap: Oftentimes simply issuing an apology is not enough to recover from a bad online reputation. Once you’ve done all you can do to immediately try to improve the situation, start thinking about long-term strategies, such as creating and promoting positive content.
How do I choose a reputation management company?
A reputation management company can help improve your reputation faster and more efficiently than if you were to go it alone. An experienced reputation management company will likely have dealt with a similar situation to yours before, and will know exactly what works and what doesn’t to solve the problem.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing a reputation management company:
- How many years of experience does the company have?
- Do they specialize in the specific area of reputation management you need help with?
- Do they deliver exceptional customer service? Will they be available to answer any questions you may have or to deal with crises as they unfold?
- Have you researched the company and reviewed their references/testimonials?
- Is the reputation company any good? A lot of reputation companies aren't.
So, what about your reputation?
Reputation management is more necessary today than it has been in the history of humankind. With the proliferation of review sites, news media and twitter, information can spread in a matter of seconds and can linger for years.
At the risk of sounding like doomsday prophets, every brand and every business today are at risk for reputation damage. Tech-savvy antagonists know how to create and distribute false information. All it takes is a single fake-but-compromising Photoshopped image on 4chan, a fake review on Google, or a spam comment on your Amazon product and you are facing a crisis that could destroy your brand.
Reputation, as this article should have made clear, is largely out of your control. But there are things that you can do — both proactively and reactively — to manage your reputation.