Mark Twain famously said, “A lie can make it half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In the Digital Age, what was once hyperbole is now an extreme understatement. Companies that survive online attacks unprepared — such as Domino’s, United Airlines and Motrin — do so only because they have strong reputations that were built over time. Other companies — usually smaller in size or involved in business-to-business sales — lack the “trust bank” of public support necessary to survive an online crisis. These victims, such as Westland Meat Packing Company and Eagle Warranty Company, don’t have strong brands to fall back on — and thus, fall off the map entirely. Businesses of all sizes and specializations must regularly monitor the conversations regarding their brands and proactively leverage online best practices to ensure they are prepared for crisis. Fortunately, the tools and tactics that build brand equity and bulletproof brands are often free — and by utilizing these online tools, companies can take greater control of their reputation now, before a reputational crisis strikes. These six steps outline free measures every company can take to protect its reputation and bulletproof its brands.
1. Establish Google Alerts
The first step in any online reputation protection effort is to set up an effective system to monitor social and digital media for mentions of your brand. Start by establishing Google Alerts to monitor what people are saying about your company in real time. This not only serves as a crisis early warning system, it also allows you to identify conversation threads and trends and begin to develop messaging attuned to key audiences. In order to comprehensively monitor the online space and track all related conversations, however, you also need to follow the high-authority bloggers and social media users who cover your industry; they can help provide advance warning when a competitor or shared industry practice comes under attack. Finally — and particularly if there are hundreds of daily mentions of your brand online — consider paid monitoring options such as Techrigy or Radian6, as they can help streamline the process of filtering complex online conversations.
2. Prepare a Crisis Response Plan
To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, every crisis communications battle is won or lost before it is ever fought. If you don’t use peacetime wisely to develop a comprehensive online crisis communications plan, what you do in the eye of the storm might not make much difference at all. A successful plan should incorporate both traditional and digital responses and also include strategies that can be deployed on a moment’s notice. For instance, your crisis plan should identify the team members who are best equipped to manage diverse situational needs. Whether this means preparing to utilize Google AdWords to spread your messaging, respond directly to critics both online and off, or launch new landing pages where concerned parties can turn for more information (to name just a few items to prepare), it is imperative that you have a plan in place before any reputational crisis strikes.
3. Implement an Employee Social Media Policy
Regardless of whether your company encourages employees to get involved in social media, they are bound to do so in their personal time. Unfortunately, even when engaging social media on their own, employees can inadvertently cause severe brand damage. In fact, in 2009, eight percent of American companies reported brand damage due to employees’ social media activity. Thus, a straightforward step in protecting your online reputation is the development and implementation of an employee social media policy that outlines the Dos and Don’ts of online engagement. Policies can range from detailed guidelines on how employees can use social media to help promote the company and spread positive messaging to simple regulations for keeping professional and personal lives separate on social media. No matter the length or specifics of your social media policy, however, the most important result is that your employees understand the power and consequences of social media participation.
4. Flood the Web with Positive Content
If your company has limited involvement on the Web, any reputational crisis is bound to dominate search results for your company. Needless to say, such a situation only compounds the crisis, particularly considering the role search engines play in modern reputation management. In order to prepare your company for such a situation, flood the Web with positive content surrounding your brand now, before it’s too late. In order to maximize your brand bulletproofing efforts, content should also be optimized for search engines. Start by using tools such as Google Keyword Tool and WordTracker to identify the top keywords on which to focus your content. Also consider developing a step-by-step guide for your Web writers that outlines how to best write for search engines. If you are able to build up a storehouse of positive, optimized content, you will create a much higher threshold for reputational attacks to overcome when it comes to influencing public perceptions.
5. Engage the Social Media Space
As you build out a storehouse of positive online content about your brand, there is no better place to do so than on social media. Social media platforms are highly authoritative, meaning that if you can generate a base of fans, followers or supporters, these social media profiles are also likely to crowd reputational attacks out of the top search results for your company. Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, present an ideal opportunity to create a forum for your supporters and customers to populate content — meaning all you have to do is create the venue and monitor for anything objectionable. Other sites, such as Twitter, require only 140-character updates — meaning you can send out multiple Tweets each week to help build brand equity and bulletproof your brand with a relatively small time commitment. But no matter where you choose to get involved, be sure to make it a conversation with your key audience. Social media is not another corporate megaphone; instead, it is an opportunity to truly connect with and cultivate brand ambassadors in the online space.
6. Address Criticism and Complaints Whenever Possible
Internet users today place more focus than ever before on peer reviews and online forums in making purchasing decisions. This means that it is even more important than ever to keep track of these comments and respond when appropriate. Consider following the example of Comcast’s Twitter presence, where the company responds in real time to customer complaints. While some particularly vitriolic complaints may not warrant a response, by regularly monitoring the most prominent and relevant online forums — including social media — and joining the conversation, you can help nip any potential crises in the bud and insert corrective messaging before others pick up on false rumors.
Richard Levick, Esq., President & CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, LLC, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global crises and litigation. His firm has directed the media strategies on Guantanamo Bay; the Catholic Church; the Wall Street crisis; the major recalls; and the largest environmental, regulatory, corruption, and merger matters in the world. Levick Strategic Communications, LLC is based in Washington, D.C. and can be reached at 202-973-1300 or at www.levick.com.