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online reputation management is like fixing a burning house

online reputation hazmat suitIf you want to fix your online reputation, writing big checks to an online reputation agency isn’t enough over the long haul — you’ll also really need to get your own house in order.

Most online reputation management (ORM) agencies can easily take back all the land you’ve ceded to negative reviews, rigorous and vigorous besmirchment, and terrible happenstance; however, this is all assuming you’ve been done wrong.

I call this scenario “the clean.” The crime scene may well be bloody and I may well need to don a Hazmat suit, fill my bucket with Clorox bleach, and get scrubbing with my stiff brush until the apartment is again rentable. The crime is over, it’s unlikely to repeat, and my job is just to restore the scene to normal.

If, on the other hand, you’re a bastard who had deep contempt for the people you serve, allow your resentment at their stupidity come off you like waves of heat and believe that the customer is always wrong and that all your products and services are pearls to swine, then, yikes! This happens all the time. So, instead of passionately working hard to service customers and clients with kindness, super-service, innovation, convenience and value, they just assume that good enough is good enough.

When it’s cheaper to hire PR pros than to change the culture

framing up a house post-online reputation management ormThis happens the most with monopolies and essential services. We all know their names. And, they’re often lambasted, drawn and quartered. While the fact that most of their clients and customers are being held hostage keeps these companies complacent when it comes to very expensive revisions in the process, quality, and service, they’re not stupid. It’s cheaper to hire an army of crisis communicators, PR agencies, ad men, and online reputation managers than it is to turn a Comcast into a Zappos — at least for a while, that is, and especially when you still represent a monopoly. Online reputation management does work, but it’s an endless game of whack-a-mole.

I call this scenario “repair and repeat.” My analogy here is war. Some neighborhoods in Israel are the victims of chronic rocket attacks. Israel’s smart: they realize that if they allow these neighborhoods to look war-torn then settlers will never move there, will never stay there.

They have dedicated teams to come in, immediately after every attack, and quickly mend the damage, be it structural or cosmetic, from panes of glass to entire rebuilds — all in the service of making sure that people in these neighborhoods feel like they have a semblance of peace and security, even though they’re living a life or Russian roulette. This is very similar to doing online reputation management for a company that has decided to spend all their money on PR, ORM, publicity, and advertising without making sure it integrates with actual services, quality, customer care, and the ability to deliver on what was and is promised in those ads, PR, and publicity.

It’s putting lipstick on a pig

Yes, maybe some accountants ran the numbers and decided that it would be cheaper to repair settlements than to make peace in the Middle East. Maybe some bean counters decided that the amount of money resulting from settling on a number of deaths associated with a flawed automobile is less money than a recall. Maybe it’s easier to care in public and on social than it is to really give a damn because you’re pretty much the only game in town. Yes, sometimes the numbers don’t lie and yet you do the right thing anyway.

And now, maybe it will be worth it, even to the bean counters

While the internet is nothing new and we have been talking about the customers taking over the conversation that used to be controlled only by Madison Avenue since 1999s Cluetrain Manifesto, it really wasn’t until Google went from playing catch-up and appeasing a corporate culture that liked to play internet- and search-stupid (“we didn’t mean to do anything terrible! what’s ‘black hat?’ — my search guy said it was kosher”).

Now, as I have been saying week after week, Google’s refining and constricting and honing its search, relying less and less on a link-based algorithm that’s been around and mostly unmolested since Sept. 4, 1998, and more on how content, information, sharing, clicking, viewing, and authorship relates to social networks, news and content platform, blogs and social platforms, and Google+. And while Google has been twice-bitten and thrice shy, continually always loosening the noose again and again, they’re now taking two steps forward and only relinquishing one.

Online reputation can’t be managed on its own

The rope is tightening, so lazy SEO and online reputation management agencies are not only becoming less effective but they’re losing entire first and second pages that they had previously held for — and promised — their clients (though we online reputation management agencies are amazingly good at promising nothing as we know how unpredictable, mysterious, and fickle Google has been every step of every day of the last 15 years). And when you’ve paid $30k/month for years to an agency that has promised to turn a bloody disaster back into a pristine property, it doesn’t matter what the contract promises to not promise, I am sure clients can become quite irate.

The law of diminishing returns

While online reputation management can work using brute force and infinite resources (think $30k+/month ad, infinitum), there will be a point of diminishing returns as Google normalizes the online reputation management campaign and the newest, freshest, and most relevant real, organic, authentic, and popular content will bubble to the top, especially as Google gets better and better at connecting organic social sharing with authorship, timeliness (real-time webbiness) and popularity into not just a contributing factor of Google’s search algorithm but the dominant source for emergent news and relevant content.

Remember, at the end of the day, Google needs to read the minds of the people who visit — based mostly on cryptic phrases written by normal folks and not by Boolean ninjas fresh from their degrees in library science.

In the end, a tarnished reputation may not be your customers’ fault

Tarnished silver can be beautiful

Tarnished silver can be beautiful, too!

If you’ve simply been besmirched, write a check to me. If, on the other hand, your corporate culture is circa 1953 in 2013 and you feel like the customer is mostly wrong, you’re cutting essential services to maximize shareholder value and you honestly believe that huge retainers to Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, and Ketchum is enough coverfire to allow you to behave badly, then think again.

While writing huge checks to an online reputation management agency is an essential first step towards reclaiming your good name on Google search, if your company is being chronically pulled through the mud, you feel like you need to blame your customers for being idiots, you find your good name self-mocked and derided on Twitter, there’s an unflattering hashtag about you, and you’re a trending topic when it comes to suck, the evidence does not support that it’s your customers’ fault.

Good luck. And, if you’ve read this far, I hate to break it to you this way: It’s not us, it’s you.

If you’d like to chat more, email me, call me at +1 (202) 869-3210 Ext 0001 or feel free to self-schedule a 15-minute call, a 30-minute call, or a 60-minute call with me.


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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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