Do Unto Others: Reputation Management Commandments

I believe that last week’s Facebook PR slime-fest was, sadly, not so much unusual as merely large-scale and clumsily executed.  Facebook has admitted to engaging public relations firm Burson-Marsteller  to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers. (Business Insider gives a pretty good overview of the story as it evolved.)  Ironically, Facebook’s angle was to urge reporters to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Really Facebook? Trying to shine a light on privacy concerns?
Needless to say, this has blown up in Facebook’s, well, face. I’m hoping that Facebook learned something from this and I’m certain that we can:

  1. There are people in business with absolutely no moral compass.
  2. Your competition may spread rumors about you.
  3. Social media allows those rumors to spread like wildfire.

The moral compass

On television, as in real life, there are people who will lie, cheat, steal (and more) to get ahead – people with no moral compass at all. Most people’s moral compass is just a little bit off of true North and can be drawn further astray by the magnet of personal self-interest. I have been lucky to know people who do the right thing regardless of self-interest, like the blogger who turned down Burson-Marsteller’s offer to advance his career by trashing Google and instead posted the damning emails that they had sent him. As business professionals, we hope to deal with honest people, but need to prepare ourselves for those who are opportunistically or pathologically dishonest.

The rumor mill

Facebook is not the first company to try to dig up dirt on their competition or simply insinuate that dirt is there through a completely unfounded rumor. Once something gets repeated enough it starts to have the ring of truth or at least to cause some doubt of the truth –think about President Obama and the Birthers. I have experienced PSPs who will say that their competition is losing business, losing employees or having quality problems – particularly in the midst of an RFP process. Usually when someone speaks disparagingly about their competition it just makes them look defensive and basically, bad. These days your competition has many ways to start the rumors indirectly via social media.

Social media wildfire

Mark Twain once said “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Fast-forward to the Internet age and a lie can circumnavigate the globe several times before the truth can slide into flip flops. And, according to Amanda Laird of CNW Group “nothing can outlive a bedbug like an online rumor.” This can happen to you and you need to be prepared.

Reputation management is an evolving field that recognizes that personal reputations and corporate brands are valuable assets to be guarded and maintained. It’s a tricky business to know whether to tackle rumors head on, look for the source and/or pursue legal action. This is becoming as major an issue for companies as marketing or PR and there are firms who specialize in this area for good reason – it’s complicated and mistakes are very public. I’ve included links to a few sources within this post and will leave you with a few high-level suggestions for getting started.

  1. Set up systems to monitor social media chatter and customer feedback about your company (there may be more than you think).
  2. Encourage all of your employees to report any stories or rumor they encounter (decentralize information gathering).
  3. Give employees guidelines for responding to specific issues (such as customer complaints) online. These guidelines may be as simple as escalating to a manager or may include specific parameters of what they can do to satisfy and unhappy customer.
  4. Centralize responsibility for development of response strategy (and for response to any trending issues.)
  5. Operate your company in an ethical way and let your employees know that rumor mongering will not be tolerated. A strong brand starts with trust and it’s a hard trait to fake.

If your company has any aspirations toward helping other companies with social media marketing, or actively marketing your own firm through social media channels, you should partner with an experienced reputation management expert and consider investing in monitoring tools. A brand is a terrible thing to waste.

The Facebook story is continuing to unfold and it will be interesting to see how Google responds. Facebook had a dicey “trust score” to begin with so, unless Google takes action it may not have much impact beyond May 2011. Then there’s Burson-Marsteller who violated so many aspects of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) code of ethics with this fiasco that it may be hard for PRSA not to take action – although they are somewhat toothless these days. Burson-Marsteller, as the hired gun, is likely to take most of the heat giving Facebook the opportunity to claim ignorance. Maybe they’ll fall on their sword – maybe not. It would make a good episode for a mini-series I’m sure.  Although, if you already watch Gossip Girl, this whole scenario may sound eerily familiar.  XOXO.

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Elizabeth Gooding

Elizabeth Gooding is the editor of the Insight Forums blog and president of Gooding Communications Group

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