By James Boyd-Wallis, Account Director, Byfield Consultancy www.byfieldconsultancy.com

Many companies are aware of the need to build and enhance their reputation in traditional media but are still catching on to the importance of online PR and reputation management.

With the increasing use and importance of the internet for news, blogs and social media outlets, companies need to think about online reputation management and how they use it to manage their overall communications programmes.

Firstly, what is reputation?

The English Oxford Dictionary defines reputation as “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something”. In the corporate setting, this definition could be extended to say that reputation is what owners, staff, media, clients, suppliers, and other key stakeholder’s say and think about a business or organisation. Companies can spend a lot of time creating a good reputation through their people, customer or client service protocols, mission statements, the media, Web 2.0, recruitment drives, corporate social responsibility projects, investment in people and the other management activities that define them as a business and as a brand. Accordingly, any one of these elements of a business can make or break its reputation.

Companies need to have all their stakeholders and audiences in mind when thinking about reputation management.

Online reputation management, therefore, is about protecting and enhancing the reputation of a person, brand or company to gain support from your stakeholders through planned and sustained communications through platforms such as company websites, online magazines, blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

There are two different kinds of online reputation management which reflects that of traditional PR: proactive and reactive. A proactive campaign is where the company or brand plans and develops a PR strategy, identifies key target audiences and target media and then actively tries to place its key messages on these platforms.

This is a good strategy no matter what size your organisation or company. Achieving positive PR will at first build awareness and, with a sustained campaign over time, should lead to greater engagement with your target audiences which could ultimately impact the bottom line in a positive way.

Proactive online reputation management should start as soon as your company creates a presence online. This will also help with Search Engine Optimisation as the PR you are producing via press releases, articles, blogs and social media will build quality links which will point from and to your company website. These tools also fulfil their primary purpose of creating awareness of your company and will lead to greater engagement with your stakeholders.

A proactive campaign also helps if your company receives negative comments on a website or a crisis hits the organisation. If the proactive campaign has been successful in gaining a number of articles and mentions online a negative comment might feature much lower down in the search engine rankings than it would if the company had made no efforts to build its reputation. This is why it is best to begin a proactive online campaign immediately and not to wait until a negative comment or a crisis hits your business.

A reactive campaign is often implemented when a company has identified an issue which has turned, or is starting to turn, into a crisis. This may cover a range of problems from a dissatisfied customer to a dispute. The common thread will be that the company expects to receive negative mentions online or has started to receive negative mentions online.

So, alongside building up a positive profile with a proactive campaign, many businesses are starting to use online and social media to good effect during a crisis.

For example Southwest, an American airline recently used social media to good effect when one of its planes skidded off the runway Chicago’s Midway Airport. No one was hurt in the incident but photos of the plane sitting awkwardly in a grassy field made the news.

Rather than allowing the newspapers and broadcasters to draw their own conclusions, the airline sent out a tweet offering basic details of what happened. It then posted a statement on Facebook and a media release was posted on its website and on its blog. The company regularly updated these statements and post as more details emerged.

The company said social media was key to their crisis communications plan as they wanted the news to come from the company before it hit the news.

Southwest managed to get in front of the news story, allowing the airline to tell its story. This successfully took the steam out of the news story and prevented speculation about the incident. The company didn’t stop there however as, on its blog, it followed up with eight updates in the days after the incident.

By responding quickly, honestly and reassuring customers, the Airline improved the news and ensured its reputation remained intact.

This is an extremely good example of how online crisis management should be conducted but when dealing with a crisis it is vital that this is incorporated as part wider communications plan which addresses both traditional and online outlets.

Companies are beginning to realise the important, and immediacy, of online communication channels and the importance of integrating online and traditional media strategies. This can only be a good thing for enhancing corporate reputation.