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Managing Online Reputation

16 Dec

Managing Online Reputation: How to protect your company on social media
By Charlie Pownall
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 236 pages

Managing Online ReputationIt seems to me there are two types of book about public relations: the analytical and the anecdotal.

Books by academics tend to be strong in the first and weak in the second. Books by practitioners are usually the other way round.

I continue to read on in the hope of one day finding the perfect balance between the two.

Before giving my verdict on this contribution, let’s review what Charlie Pownall does well.

He brings an international perspective (he divides his time between Hong Kong and London) and the case studies cover tourist boards, airlines and global brands.

He has real-world experience (he’s a consultant and trainer) and he writes well.

His chapter on activists v corporates is a highlight of the book. While Greenpeace v Shell may not be an original choice, the incident he illustrates (a parody attack) is fresh – and the conclusion he reaches (in praising Shell’s response) is surprising.

The book is well structured, reviewing the threats, then discussing the angry mob (customers, activists etc) before turning to handling crises.

But is this book needed? How could you write about managing reputation or about handling crises in 2015 without discussing digital and social media and 24/7 news?

If it’s a book about reputation management, where’s the discussion of reputation concepts (who owns it, how to measure it)?

If it’s a book about digital and social media, why no discussion of the principle and practice of editing Wikipedia entries, a major talking point this year?

Though useful to public relations students and practitioners (there’s a lifetime’s experience here, and the case studies are very recent), this book is written for senior executives who must have sleepless nights over the risks to reputation.

The message is that they need competent advisers to help them navigate the challenges ahead. So who can they turn to? Lawyers? IT experts? Risk managers? Management consultants? PR consultants?

The answer is all of the above, and the question is not answered about the role of the public relations adviser. Though the need for good PR advice is more important than ever, it’s not clear whether PR consultants will be the winners.

Pownall’s approach appears to be to avoid the term public relations. Though he’s worked for Burson-Marsteller in the past, he seems to find the term too limiting and too discredited. Here’s what he says when discussing Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks:

‘Many people consider reputation management to be a function of public relations first and foremost. Yet public relations people are closely associated with spin doctoring and the manipulation of the media, search engines, and anything else they can twist to their advantage.’

So how does this book score on the analysis-anecdote equation?

It’s of most value when the author gives examples. To pick one, who would have thought there could be anything new to say about Malaysia Airlines, yet Pownall has some insights into the early handling of the disappearance of flight MH370.

I find it lighter in analysis – perhaps because a consultant’s advice is necessarily specific to the circumstances and not readily generalisable. There is a chapter on defining online reputation threats, but I find Andrew Griffin‘s framework more practical.

This is a timely and sensible book, and the author provides a useful critique of reading too much into social media conversations:

‘It is … tempting to consider your online reputation as your reputation, a kind of mirror image of what people think about you in the real world. Tempting, but mistaken. An organization’s reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders view it, from customers, employees, and investors to government, investors [sic], and suppliers, each of which can have very different expectations. But online conversations are usually dominated by discussions about products and services by customers and prospective customers, while other stakeholder voices are voiced less frequently. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator, pension fund manager, or buy-side analyst actively discussing a company on Facebook?’

Is not this distinction between a customer-centric view and a stakeholder view a key distinguisher between marketing and public relations?

Pownall may protest, but this book demonstrates the continuing importance of public relations.

Public relations: to promote and protect

27 Jul

Here’s my belated contribution to Andy Green’s #PRredefined initiative – and also to those who would separate craft from professional public relations, or internal from external comms.

The interesting question for me is not ‘what is PR?’ but rather ‘what’s the purpose of public relations’?

Publicity is not an end in itself, but a means to some other end. The purpose of publicity is often to serve a sales or marketing end. There”s nothing wrong with this except that it makes it hard to distinguish public relations from marketing.

Yet if we separate publicity from public relations, we lose the base of the pyramid, the most widely-practised part of the business. We also lose our foot-in-the-door since the desire for promotion is universal, and by no means limited to the private sector. (Just think how charities and campaigning organisations use public relations).

So I’m happy to accept the promotional aspect of public relations – and would argue that the proliferation of media channels and rise of social media makes public relations a more broadly-useful approach to promotion than advertising. The decline in trust also makes it more valuable than SEO or search marketing.

But PR’s trump card has nothing to do with one-way publicity. It’s to do with reputation and relationships – with an end goal of maintaining an organisation’s ‘licence to operate’.

Let me back up a bit in order to explain this. Let’s take the long view of the promotional industries.

In the nineteenth century, promotion was in its infancy. What mattered most was resources: capital, energy, raw materials and cheap labour. Making things was the hard part – promotion could come later.

In the twentieth century, the means to make things became more widespread. Many people could make chocolate, or cars, or fizzy drinks. So the differentiating factor became the ‘brand’ – the recognisable quality that set a Cadburys, or a Ford or a Coca-Cola apart from their many competitors. Public relations became a part of the promotional industries serving these brands (though as public relations historians point out, it had not begun there.)

What’s changing in the twenty-first century? We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight but it seems to me that brand is a diminishing rather than a growing concept. What’s becoming important is ‘legitimacy’.

Let’s take an example. Marlboro was an exemplary twentieth century brand, complete with memorable advertising. What’s changed is the public acceptability of smoking – and the tightening restrictions on tobacco promotion in western countries. No amount of brand recognition counts against the legal and societal constraints on smoking.

The only credible strategy for Philip Morris it to de-emphasise its tobacco business in favour of its food and drink brands (in other words to save the business, not the brand).

Which business will come next? It could be a fast food supplier like Macdonalds (because of concerns over obesity and over meat production) or energy or transport companies (environmental concerns).

Promotion and promotional culture are not about to vanish, but they are becoming less important than the other role of PR – the defensive and adaptive role that helps organisations manage society’s expectations (or to argue for society to change its view of an industry as has been happening with nuclear power generation in the context of the need to meet low-carbon energy needs).

That’s why I view public relations as a double-edged sword (‘to promote and protect’) and that’s why I believe it has a bright future.

PR v SEO: it’s a question of source credibility

24 May

What’s the difference between a PR hustler chasing media mentions and a digital executive chasing links? Conceptually, none at all. Hence the rather useful phrase SEO PR that’s increasingly being used.

In practice, though, there is a difference between an SEO pitch and a PR pitch. Google knows this and is tightening the screws on SEO tactics through its latest update (Penguin 2.0).

SEO and PR both seek the same outcome, but use different approaches (as do PR and advertising).

The SEO executive typically sends a message to a site owner (often an amateur blogger) offering to write a ‘guest post’. They never say who they are of who they represent, though they send links to other articles they’ve written on the topic of their pitch. The purpose of the (spurious) post is solely to link back to whichever site needs boosting. It’s like the fraudster keen to be photographed with famous people so they can assume some of their credibility.

The PR executive also approaches a media site (professional or amateur) with some form of content: a news release, a comment,  a potential feature or an interview opportunity. The PR approach does not hide the purpose of the approach (promoting the client) leaving the recipient to judge the content on its merits.

When I receive pitches, I make a snap judgement on whether it’s an SEO pitch or a PR pitch. The initial difference is the credibility of the source. Further down the line, the PR practitioner should also value relationships whereas the SEO industry is ravenous for links and hits and gives little or no thought to the value of longer-term relationships.

Some will think this a classic example of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’. Yet I find it encouraging that PR people are no longer the most egregious examples of internet spam. Google’s pursuit of the genuine over the fake is now playing into the hands of PR people who have a valuable role in exchanging valued content and links and developing relationships.

It’s a while since I’ve read an SEO expert proclaiming that ‘PR is dead’. Memes can die too.

It’s not what we do, it’s whether it works

1 Jun

Measure what matters Book review: Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement and Key Relationships by Katie Delahaye Paine. Wiley.

Let's start with one of the author's anecdotes from her own practice experience.

"I spent millions of dollars each year writing, designing, and producing pieces of paper that were supposed to make my sales force more effective," she writes. "Whether it ever worked was never questioned, it was what we did."

She's right. The emphasis in public relations practice has traditionally been on what we do, not on whether it works.

This is true of public relations practice. What doesn't or shouldn't change are the principles behind the practice. Now for another quotation from the author:

"The future of public relations lies in the development of relationships, and the future of measurement lies in the accurate analysis of those relationships. Counting impressions will become increasingly irrelevant while measuring relationships and reputation will become ever more important" (p 219).

This quotation is from the conclusion to the same author's 2007 book, Measuring Public Relationships. She cites it again in this new text to point out that what was true then remains true now. Four years ago is not a long time, of course, unless you live in Twitter time.

Continue reading

Review: The Business of Influence

1 May

Business of Influence Philip Sheldrake's The Business of Influence is a useful contribution to the literature on PR, marketing and social media – but above all it adds to the literature on measurement and evaluation.

The account starts with two milestone texts from 1999: The Cluetrain Manifesto and Permission Marketing. So we know to expect a discussion of rapid change and blurring boundaries between marketing and PR.

The author covers some theory and definitions (drawing heavily on the work of James Grunig), but is equally keen to cite arguments on blogs and responses on Twitter.

There's original thinking too. The concept of influence flows is an extension to the more usual discussion of communications models. Influence, Shelrake notes, is different from popularity.

He's strong on measurement – and acknowledges that his book complements Katie Paine's Measure What Matters (see my review). Sheldrake's description of AVE reads like a sentence from Cluetrain:

AVE: "a specious sum based on false assumptions using an unfounded multiplier, only addressing a fraction of the PR domain."

Continue reading

Search and reputation optimisation

6 Jan

Domainrenewal2 One day on from my rant about Domain Renewal Group, and Google has ranked my post higher than the company's own website (for the admittedly rather odd search string 'pop domain renewal group'). I know this because someone found my blog having typed this search in Belgium.

Other recent visitors to PR Studies came here having entered 'meaning PR', 'dissertation public relations', 'why want to work in PR', 'emergence social media public relations'.

This is a fair overview of this blog's content over several years – and a hint of what I should write more about if I'm to attract more visitors through search.

Community conversations: a case study

12 Nov

We took a look at the conversations surrounding a brand in class today – but I did not get to choose the case study.

ASOS sounds to me like a Taiwanese laptop manufacturer – but it's a brand that means a lot to my students.

We started with the website, and took a look at news reports, then moved onto blogs.

With Twitter it became really interesting. An appeal for photos of customers wearing leather garments was responded to within minutes. These photos became potential content for the ASOS Life Community site.

Customers were raving about the brand and its offers – and so were doing the marketing for the company. I could barely find a critical voice on the social web.

People are clearly happy to share their love of fashion and I can envisage this being true of music or sports fans – but it's not so easy to see how other organisations can so easily recruit customers to become fans.