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Reputation management in the Social Age

by Joanne Jacobs on 12 April 2012

At 1000heads we pride ourselves on authentic communication.  We never tell audiences what to say when they take to social channels. And we’re immensely proud of our ethical stance.  But it’s amazing how often a client will expect us to do precisely that: to control what is being said.

This is old-style reputation management.  It comes from the PR discipline, where the whole raison d’etre involves controlling corporate messaging and ensuring that slogans and ideas are repeated, and parroted back by the throng. And because recall of brand messages has been a focus of market research, the perception among clients is that controlling the message should be a priority.

What such businesses fail to understand is that classical PR messages are no longer in control.  Conversations happening online are not abiding by messaging guidelines, and this is a *good thing*.  Audiences are interacting with brands on the basis of authentic experiences and impressions, not in accordance with a script, thus the information they share is a useful source of research on brand understanding and engagement. The response may not always be the desired one, as we’ve talked about before, but it’s all part of the process.

In the Social Age, reputation management is a matter of listening and responding to interactions, not a matter of controlling conversations.  And the scale of responses varies from taking part in conversations, to knowledge aggregation, influencer engagement, problem solving, product optimisation, and supply chain monitoring.  It’s not just for externally facing operations either. Social reputation management can involve learning from a firm’s own employee and service relationships.

From a PR perspective this is a revolution; no longer is the act of brand management a broadcast function. It’s not entirely reactive either. It’s more facilitative, and as such, requires sophisticated strategic thinking.  Creative scenarios need to be established that will generate data that can inform how a business should develop.  It’s not about controlling conversations, but rather about providing a safe, supportive space in which questions may be posed, suggestions can be made, and ideas can be cultivated.   As a function, social brand reputation management bears a closer resemblance to objective audience research than traditional PR or advertising. But as such, the return on investment for social business reputation management is potentially much higher than old-style message control, because the output of interactions is designed to improve business processes, and to develop more genuinely constructive and mutually beneficial relationships.  While all businesses have to sell their products to stay in business, they are more likely to achieve this end if all stakeholders are engaged, having an interest in the production process.  Rather than “customer loyalty”, social reputation management generates audience investment.

As social business professionals, it’s our job to uphold this distinction and to educate our clients about the differences between old-style corporate message control and social reputation management.  It can be easy to slip, quietly, into old-style PR in our dealings with clients, just to keep them happy.  But that way be dragons.  Authenticity requires trust. And any kind of messaging control involves artifice.

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  • http://observations.johnwlewis.info John W Lewis

    Excellent, Joanne! This is a superb description of the fundamental flip in control between social communication and centralised communication.

    I am reminded of a sarcastic quip by John Bell at a Like Minds conference: “if you want to be authentic, say this!”, which seems to capture this same point. 

    For those of us who have not historically been involved with PR, or marketing/brand communication, you have provided a succinct overview of the challenge faced by those who have.

    Thank you!