It’s a virtual certainty that some unforeseen crisis will put a company’s reputation at risk.
It could be a cyberattack on customers’ financial information. It could be a product failure uncovered by a business journalist. Or it could be a disgruntled former employee who airs his complaints online.
Internet technology and social media have increased the potential damage to companies public profiles. They’ve also accelerated the speed at which a viral episode can inflict widespread harm.
“I don’t know that there is any industry that is immune from a potential communications or reputation management crisis,” says Cindy Leines, founder and CEO of Plymouth–based CEL Public Relations Inc. Her clients are primarily in service industries, including health care, education, financial services, and nonprofits. In many businesses, particularly small and midsize ones, “there was a ‘It can never happen to me’ philosophy,” Leines adds. But with today’s communications technologies “and how visible everything is to the world,” she cautions, “even if you’re under the radar, it can happen.”
Welcome to reputation management in the social media age.
Someone can post a nasty and revealing comment about a company online, and suddenly the business has to defuse a bomb that could blow its brand to bits. And one thing about online communication is abundantly clear: It has shortened the fuses of many customers.
But public relations and business communications professionals argue that companies can build some protection for themselves.
It’s important to recognize the power of current communications technology. It’s provided benefits to nearly all businesses, but it’s a mixed blessing.
“There’s more opportunity to share your message, project your brand, and build your reputation,” says Joshua Schneck, founder and CEO of Minneapolis–based Snow Communications Inc., a PR firm specializing in B2B communications for companies in health care, professional services, and technology, among others. “And that, up to a point, I think is a very good thing.”
Online communications allow businesses to broadcast to a wider audience the ways in which a “company might be doing some positive things,” whether that’s creating a breakthrough product or volunteering for the local Habitat for Humanity build.
Younger consumers in particular are more interested than even 20 or 30 years ago in a company’s “credibility and authenticity—the quality of the company that they’re dealing with” when looking to buy a product or service, Schneck says. “They care passionately about how that company operates—what they stand for, how they treat their employees.”
But that also means others can share their messages about a company. “Anybody who has a bone to pick with you can post very freely,” Schneck notes. “Especially with social media, whatever kind of company you are, it’s all the more likely that people outside the company are going to know about it.” Google reviews and sites like Glassdoor (where employees and would-be employees write about their experiences working for companies) provide a lot of clotheslines for airing dirty laundry.
That’s why PR executives say that the basis of reputation management is having a good reputation to begin with. “Reputation management is often thought of as responding to crises or critical issues,” says Matt Kucharski, president of Minneapolis–based business communications agency Padilla. “But reputation management really starts with building a reputation.” And more often, that building takes place online.
These days, few businesses can get away with throwing a cheap-looking website onto the web. A company’s online presence has a huge impact, says Stephani Simon, president of Minneapolis–based Inprela Communications, whose clients are mostly business-to-business companies in industries that include manufacturing and health care. A poorly maintained website can hurt a company’s brand. “It’s all based on how customers view a business,” she adds. “ ‘Is this company relevant? Is it staying up to date?’ That’s your reputation.”
A company’s ability to stay current with technology reflects how well it stays abreast of customer needs. Simon cites a recent marketing report declaring 2019 as “the year where the customer experience is actually going to overtake price and product as a key brand differentiator for consumers.” The emotional connection with the brand is something that she believes is transferring to the B2B realm.
“Our expectations are higher as technology continues to get better,” Simon says. “If consumers have to wait three seconds for a page to load, they jump off and move on to somebody else.” Consumers’ expectations need to be met to their satisfaction regardless of business size and type. “It should be the exact same experience when you buy a more complex B2B purchase as when you’re buying shoes off of Amazon,” she says.
In the current communications landscape, PR agencies increasingly are using “storytelling” and “content strategy” as terms to describe their work. Simon’s firm is one of those. A big part of its work is creating online content for businesses. “If they are learning about your company’s products and services for the first time, they need top-of-funnel content that educates them and gets them heading down the right path and evaluating your offering as a potential solution,” Simon says.
When it comes to valuable content, Simon notes that customers have become more skeptical about being “sold” too early in the buying process. “If they don’t want to be talking with a sales rep and they want to do most of their research up front, you need to be developing content that’s relevant at each stage of their buying journey,” she says. And that requires a website that’s easy to use, with the needed information—online brochures, white papers, and product data—that’s simple to access.
The goal, Simon says, is to “create as frictionless of a customer experience online as possible.” By demonstrating expertise and keeping the selling as soft as possible, companies can project an image as a trustworthy vendor and partner.
“A company’s online presence may be the first experience customers have with their brand,” says Heather Champine, partner and COO of Burnsville–based Media Relations Agency, which specializes in product marketing and PR for clients in nutrition, beauty, medical devices, and other health-related industries. That means a company needs “to be easily discoverable and trusted for an information resource,” she adds. That translates into providing usable content, as well as employing search engine optimization techniques that boost the chances of the company’s site appearing in a customer’s online research.
The increasing emphasis on online content doesn’t mean that traditional PR practices have disappeared. What the industry calls “earned media”—news articles or segments about a company—remains “the most influential and impactful way” for companies to boost their reputations, Champine says. “The media has such tremendous power in that third-party credibility,” she says. While press releases can sometimes attract a reporter’s attention, Champine says that a company should also let journalists know that it can provide credible expertise about an industry they cover.
Positive news coverage is one tried-and-true way to build reputation and influence. Another technique is to “nurture advocates and people of influence before there’s a challenging issue,” says Tom Lindell, managing director of Minneapolis–based Exponent Public Relations. Those advocates can include a company’s most loyal customers. People who’ve had experience with the brand and are sharing that personal experience, through a post, comment, review, or other type of brand endorsement are “incredibly powerful, whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer,” Lindell adds.
“Employees are often considered some of the most credible voices about a company because they’re seeing it from the inside,” he says. “So it’s important for them to be engaged and to be heard within an organization.” Many businesses also can cultivate advocates in the communities in which they operate through outreach and relationship building.
These are assets a company can leverage should a PR problem arise. “The most credible people who can advocate on your behalf are the people who already know the company,” Lindell says. “They can say, ‘My experience with this company or this brand is much different than what this outsider is saying’ or ‘I have the confidence that they do the right thing.’ Then on their own social channels, on their own initiative, they can be the most valuable thing an organization can have in terms of credibility.”
By cultivating and regularly engaging with company advocates, businesses “build up a kind of credit bank,” Schneck says. “Every company occasionally stumbles. But if you’re out there building your reputation, it gives you a lot more credibility” with stakeholders when something bad happens. They’ll be more willing to cut a business some slack, and even to defend it online.
When a problem raises its ugly head, a company’s first response is typically to defend itself as quickly as possible. But that often “adds fuel to the fire and draws even more attention to an unflattering story or a bad situation,” Champine says. In the ready-fire-aim world of social media, shooting out a fast response before evaluating all the available information is called a “hot take.” Hot takes are typically wrong, or at the very least an overreaction.
It’s quite possible, she notes, that a supposedly incendiary comment hasn’t caught fire in cyberspace. A better first step is to calmly assess the story’s reach, Champine says. “How many people have reacted? You may find that it’s already buried or missed completely.”
Still, a company might find that the spark threatens to become a fire. That online observation or report might indeed be a sign that the company is facing a problem. If the business determines that is indeed the case, “it’s better to be responsible for something that went wrong,” Champine says. “The worst thing you can do is try to appear blameless.” If a company really isn’t at fault, it should note that—but it should do so calmly, not defensively.
If there is a real problem, managers should “be genuine and accept responsibility and explain how they’ll use what happened as a learning opportunity,” Champine says. “A lot of people are looking for [a business] to take action and really communicate that the company cares.” A carefully crafted, openly communicated response will help repair a reputation—it can even enhance it. Then, of course, it’s time to follow through—for instance, offering customers a year’s worth of free security monitoring if a company has been hit with a cyberattack.
“A mistake that a lot of companies will do is to go into hiding,” Champine says, especially if the media comes calling. Instead, they should be prepared to respond.
Her agency, for instance, brainstorms with clients about potential problems and crises that might arise and the potential impact. They then work on a plan that details how the company should react—and whether it should react. “Having that in place before a crisis happens will help cut down on the time to respond,” Champine says. “And if it was developed when everyone was calm and not emotionally charged, [responses] are usually clearer and more effective.”
Padilla’s Kucharski recommends that his clients put in place the proactive strategies that the best companies take when they’re trying to build their reputation. One of those strategies is a kind of reputation-risk assessment, which involves “looking at the things that could happen and evaluating them based on (a) their likelihood of happening, and (b) the severity if they do happen,” he says. If an airplane flies into a building, that would be disastrous, but very unlikely. A successful data hack might be far less dramatic—but it’s all too possible.
Then there are the online conversations. Like other PR executives, Kucharski recommends that all companies keep a digital ear cocked for those. There are many digital monitoring tools available—perhaps the easiest for most businesses, particularly smaller ones, is Google Alerts, which lets businesses know when and where they’re being mentioned.
“Even if you’re not ‘live’ on social media, people may be talking about your business or your industry, and you want to know that,” CEL Public Relations’ Leines says. That way, if something comes up that might require a response—a compliment or product idea—the company “can get ahead of it or at least be a part of it.”
Though online communications have changed how companies build and maintain their reputations, in many respects the basics have not changed.
Leines says, “You can either manage your reputation, or it can manage you.”
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.