By Richard Stone
You should consider the social media profiles of all of your staff, the content produced about your business by the media and bloggers and the content that you might find in online conversations, such as LinkedIn or chat rooms. You should also, and this is crucial, think about the way that this content appears in search results, notably on page one of Google.
That said, it’s worth addressing the fact that there are people who look beyond page one, people who will use social media as their first way of assessing your reputation and, believe it or not, a few who use other search engines.
The bottom line is that your digital footprint exists forever.
There is a lot that you can do to manage the way your stakeholders perceive you online, but a piece of negative content will never disappear permanently. I have even heard of people in business using digital archiving tools, such as the WayBack Machine, to check what their supplier's websites, or magazine articles featuring their suppliers, looked like in the past – to see if the company in question has edited or updated the site to hide something.
The two things you should consider are simple; do the positive things about your business actually make a good impression on the customer and are there any negative things you need to manage?
Here are my top three tips for managing the positive:
1. Are all of your social media profiles up to date? Are you happy with the description, photo and content? I would suggest having a limited set of graphics and photography styles that are approved for use on social media and only allowing updates to be added by a core set of approved people.
2. Set up alerts using a social and online monitoring tool such as TalkWalker, or a paid for alternative if you have the budget, to see where you are mentioned online in the media and forums. When something positive appears, draw as much attention to it as you can using social media, e-mail marketing and your own website's media section.
3. Ensure that your web site and other owned online platforms, such as your social profiles, Google My Business and listing sites, are optimised for search, accurate and portray you in a good light. If they do, and they feature as much content as you can squeeze in to them, then start asking your customers to leave reviews.
Manage the negative with these three tips:
1. Using the social and online monitoring tool you created during the positive steps, listen for negative content. Whenever something appears that will put a customer off, you need to tackle it immediately. Can the journalist that wrote it, edit the article to show you in a better light if you provide more information? Did they just get it wrong? Journalists are pretty reasonable people, albeit busy, and if they've made a mistake it's in their interest to correct it.
2. Listen for negative mentions on social media. If the person saying the negative thing has either a large or an influential audience, you should tackle this directly - person to person. If they don't have any influence but do have a valid complaint you should also tackle this immediately. If neither is true, they are best ignored - most trolls will stop if you don't feed them.
3. Google yourself using your key search terms. Is there anything negative there? If there is, I would advise using the Google Disavow to remove links that simply harm your search position - providing they were created with the intention of manipulating search results.
If the negative link is a piece of genuine content, perhaps from a dissatisfied former employee or customer, you have two options. The first and best is to contact them, resolve the problem in a mutually beneficial way, and ask them to remove the content. Just to be clear, bribery is not an option!
The second option is to create other platforms, such as websites or social platforms that simply push the negative content past page one of Google and ideally onto a much lower page. This is perfectly legitimate but difficult.
On very rare occasions, Google will remove data from its listings, but generally speaking this would need to be things like stolen data, such as bank details. Finally, as an individual you have the right to be forgotten, but as a business this would probably spell commercial suicide.
Ethics and corporate responsibility
I can almost hear a legion of voices asking me a very valid question about ethics. In an age of corporate responsibility and transparency, is it okay to hide your mistakes using reputation management techniques.
I think you can answer this by asking whether it is fair and legal for you to be judged on the thing that is damaging your reputation. For instance, it would clearly not be ethical for Volkswagen Group to try to cover up its test emissions scandal, and I have no evidence to believe it has done so or reason to suggest this.
In theory, it would be possible to simply cover up a scandal like this if you put enough work in. In practice it would be impossible; the quantity of material appearing online and in the news every minute of every day would be far too great to manage.
According to Eric Schmidt of Google, the human race currently creates as much information every two days as it did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. Recently, emissions scandals have made up a large portion of that and there would be very little point in trying to hide or change it. It would also be clearly unethical in any frame of reference.
Furthermore, managing the online environment doesn’t by itself manage a customer’s view of your business.
In contrast, if you are a small business that treats its staff and customers well, it may be completely ethical to attempt to remove or hide damage done to your brand by one customer or staff member with an axe to grind. Similarly, if you have been libelled or defamed, it is entirely reasonable for you to take action to counter this problem.
Finally, if a magazine or newspaper has published material that expressed its opinion about your product or business, it is realistic to argue that your opinion is more valid and attempt to outperform their content in search engines. In fact, I would argue that it's your duty to your stakeholders to do so.
The ethical grey area becomes less easy to navigate if the negative press is entirely factual, comparing your product to a competing product for instance, or, worse still, the result of legal action against your business.
Of course, if like Dr Who and his bootstrapper paradox (which I hope you Googled by the way) you can simply hop back in time and fix things with a causal loop, you don't need to worry. For the rest of us, it might be worth considering reputation management.