By Claire West

Whilst the UK and Worldwide banking system is in crisis and their reputation in tatters, the degree to which this is so could have been mitigated by the banks using the Internet to greater effect to keep savers and the general public better informed.

According to Paul Mead, Managing Director of VCCP Search few of the banks and associated financial institutions have managed to use Search to reassure investors and depositors as to the safety of their money. Most, he claims, have failed to use the internet to put across their line of reasoning, preferring to pretend that the greatest communication platform of the last fifty years, or arguably ever, is a peripheral one or even non-existent.

Analysis carried out by online reputation management specialists VCCP Search into the online presence of banks showed:

• Sell! Sell! Sell! UK banks stick their heads in the sand over the banking crisis and focus on selling more loans and financial products to their customers.

• Analysis of the UK’s top banks showed little or no communication with concerned customers or share holders on the day the FTSE crashed a further 10% – with banking stocks worst hit

• Consumers reading about the financial meltdown turn to Google for reassurance and more information about their money and their bank. They find advice sorely lacking. VCCP Search finds an almost total communications failure by the UKs leading banks

• Of the top 10 retail banks in the UK only one has any direct reference to the global banking crisis on their home page. First Direct is the ONLY bank to mention mentions the word ‘credit crunch’ and talk about what it means for First Direct customers

• Barclays tell its customers ‘think carefully about securing debts against your home’. Advice it should perhaps have heeded itself along with the rest of the banking community!

‘Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked and never mended well’. Benjamin Franklin’s words are particularly appropriate in these turbulent times when it’s more important than ever for companies to consider every opportunity to protect and manage their hard won reputation and brand value.

It is interesting to see then that one of the largest media channels, online, is more often than not completely neglected from a communications point of view in times of strife. Yet search engines and Google, in particular, have such an enormous audience (over 28m people per month in the UK) and are such a part of our everyday lives that it’s astonishing how many brands can get this channel so badly wrong in times of crisis.

Over the last few weeks, for instance, Bradford and Bingley has rarely been out of the news as speculation reached fever pitch that the UK mortgage lender would become the next Northern Rock. During this period of intensive media and market interest the volume of searches for ‘Bradford & Bingley’ on Google has increased dramatically.

However, Bradford & Bingley chose to ignore the crisis and reassure investors with some comforting prose and just continued to offer: Internet Saver 6.51% p.a. gross/AER. Open today with £1.

A look at the Google search results page shows no attempt to understand what people are looking for and regain some brand equity by delivering the right message at the right time or to address the concerns posed by the Telegraph’s Adwords campaign listed directly below it.

Online is the modern channel of choice for information and search engines are most people’s starting point in that journey. The search engine results page should therefore be considered as the frontline in modern communications and brands need to think more seriously about their ‘search relations’ programme.

There are two distinct roles which a search engine plays in the communication mix — assessing influence and facilitating reaction.

When rumours start or content is created about a brand on a forum, message board, social media site or a blog, the search engine algorithms are the first line in assessing the influence and authority of that content. The algorithms will look at a long list of subtle factors to make this assessment, from the technical construction of the page to the number and ‘quality’ of links to it from third party sites. Any content about a business, whether it’s positive or negative will live or die by whether or not it gets ranked by Google for the brand keywords. If it doesn’t then a communications director won’t be losing any sleep over it no matter how malicious or damaging. For the brand is back in the safe world of 99% of all blogs – having a readership of one.

Search engines are the wind that fans the flames of any bush fire around a brand. Without them bad news won’t get far, but with a prominent ranking anything is possible. If you were to Google ‘Land Rover Discovery’ then a blog called appears just under the brand’s own website. It’s full of horror stories from vehicle owners and will have stopped many a purchase cycle dead in its tracks. There are many other examples, too numerous to list here, but the point is that it has never been easier for third parties to have their say about a business and for this point of view, rightly or wrongly, to reach a large audience via search engines and influence perceptions of a brand.

The second role that search engines fulfil is to facilitate reaction. Search engines are the first port of call for any stakeholders who are reacting to a breaking news story and whether they be journalists, shareholders or consumers, they’re programmed these days ‘to Google it’ and influenced by what they see on that first page of results. Trying to sell something when the world seems to be falling in is not the most appropriate message to deliver but that’s often the end result due to the current lack of communications and brand understanding going into the search strategy of many large corporations.

As the global financial crisis unfolds, brands need to get up to speed quickly with this new world order and to integrate their media, communications and search operations more effectively. Search relations will soon become an accepted part of a brand’s communications strategy and getting it right will go along way towards ensuring there are fewer cracks to repair in a brand’s hard won reputation.

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