Online Reputation Management: Interview with Andy Beal (Fall 2008)

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Andy Beal is an Internet marketing consultant specializing in search engine marketing, online reputation management, and business blogging. Considered one of the world’s most respected online marketing experts, Andy has worked with many top companies such as Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, SAS, Lowe’s, Quicken Loans, and NBC. He is the co-author of the critically acclaimed online reputation management book Radically Transparent, editor of Marketing Pilgrim, and founder of Trackur.com.

SMS: Andy, you have done a tremendous job in the field of online reputation management, releasing the reputation management tool, Trackur, and publishing a book, Radically Transparent. Why did you decide to shift your attention to online reputation management?

Andy: The shift happened a few years ago as I began to see a gradual increase in demand for this type of service. The book was an opportunity to bring together that advice and really help those who want to understand online reputation management. The book took about a year to put together. Radically Transparent was released this spring, and since the release of the book, it just seems as though online reputation management has become the major focus of the consulting and services that I offer.

SMS: With the rise of social media, many companies are afraid of losing control over their message. We’ve seen a sharp rise in the use of tactics like cease-and-desist letters, but not always with success. Are these attempts at regaining control overly aggressive or are responses like The Associated Press’s measures against bloggers quoting their stories justified during what they perceive as extreme circumstances?

Andy: Well, I think that brand owners – companies in particular – need to understand that they lost control of their reputation many years ago. Certainly in the last five years, that strong control, that strong grasp that companies thought they had on their brand has disappeared. Social media is certainly a big part of the reason for that. Honestly, I don’t necessarily know if companies should want to try to regain that control anyway. Basically, what has happened is that reputations and brands are now owned by any stakeholder that has a say in that reputation. And so the company has a voice, the employees have a voice, investors have a voice, customers, members of the press, and so on. We all have a say in the reputation of the company because we all interact with the company.

And so instead of sending cease-and-desist letters and trying to retain that control, companies are much better off joining the conversation and being a part of the creation and the management of their reputation. There are a lot of things they can do to try to manage and influence it, and we cover those in Radically Transparent, but the concept of having full control over your brand is forever gone.

SMS: What are some proactive steps a business can take to manage their online reputation?

Andy: The first thing companies should do is to listen. They need to determine what’s being said about their brand, and they need to determine the location for these conversations – what we call the “centers of influence” in Radically Transparent. These vary from company to company and from industry to industry. There could be certain blogs where this is happening. It could be that your reputation is being discussed on Facebook or MySpace. It could be there are forums or message boards. The key thing is to identify those conversations and to listen to what your customers are saying about your brand. If you did nothing but that, that’s a really strong step. At least then you can understand what the perception of your brand is, what customers like about you, what they don’t like about you, and what improvements you can make in order to make your customers happier.

The next step is then to join that conversation. And by joining that conversation, you really do help to mitigate the chances that you’ll face a reputation attack. Let your customers know that you’re there, answer their questions, show that you respond to their feedback. Reach out to them in a voice and channel in which they are holding these conversations. For example, you might start a blog and post conversational updates to that blog. It could be that you have someone assigned to join Twitter and engage customers on Twitter. Maybe you create a MySpace profile where your customers can get together and discuss your product.

Those are the two core concepts we discuss in Radically Transparent - really looking at how do you monitor this, and then how do you use the different channels that are available in order to join the conversation and manage your reputation.

SMS: As far as joining the conversation, would you advise companies to join every conversation or are there specific cases where they should just stay away and not participate?

Andy: That’s a great question. You certainly need to analyze the situation before you decide if it warrants your intervention. There could be some conversations where it’s best that the company stays out of it. If there is a complaint about your product and all of your biggest fans, all of your biggest product evangelists come to your defense for you, then you probably don’t need to join that conversation. Just let your community defend your reputation for you. Likewise, you won’t have the time or the resources to respond to every single blog post about your company, so you might want to take a look at whether this blogger is relevant to your industry, do they have an audience, are other bloggers talking about this post? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then you probably want to engage that blogger. If the answer is “no,” then you probably don’t necessarily need to engage that particular blogger.

Going to the other extreme, if someone says something negative about you that’s totally incorrect, then you definitely should look to engage them in some way in order to get this content off of the Web before people start believing it’s true. And so you need to look for situations where someone is spreading rumors or lies about you and maybe nip those in the bud.

SMS: Let’s say disaster has struck and a company finds itself in the eye of the storm. The blogosphere is on fire. The negative coverage is flying left and right. The major news networks are about to pick up the story. What can those charged with damage control at the company do at this point?

Andy: The first thing to do is to not panic. You need to make sure that you have all of the facts in front of you before you decide your next step. But you do need to do that quickly. So you need to quickly collect together the facts. You need to understand the complaint, understand your detractor. What are they complaining about? Is it legitimate? Is this something that could potentially spread to other media outlets? So you need to understand who they are. Maybe bring together your trusted advisors – people within your company, your PR firm, your attorney – just to get their advice. You won’t necessarily have them respond for you, but just to get counsel from as many people as possible. And then how you actually approach it does depend on what is being said and the severity of it.

I’ll give you three words that I tell people to remember, no matter what the situation. And they are: sincerity, transparency, and consistency. I’ll explain each of these words. Sincerity is to be apologetic, to let people know that there is remorse, that this is something you are shocked by and is not something you are going to ignore. Transparency is then to let people know what it is that you are doing specifically to address the situation. Too many companies just make a statement like “we’re aware of the situation and we’re working on it.” That’s not transparent enough. You need to let your customers – and in particular the person who is attacking your reputation – know that they’ve been heard and details of the actions you’re taking in order to determine the problem and fix it. Lastly, consistency, which is basically following up on what you said you are going to do and making sure there is no repeat episode of whatever the situation is. So it’s basically showing your stakeholders, showing your customers, that they can trust you again. This was an isolated incident, and it’s not going to be repeated again. Those three words really go a long way to help any business facing a reputation attack.

SMS: There are stories of online reputation firms hiring bloggers to provide positive coverage with little-to-no disclosure. Where should one draw an ethical line when it comes to managing your online reputation?

Andy: We actually cover that in Radically Transparent. We present the option of purchasing reviews and paying bloggers to talk about you, but we also present that with a huge caveat that it is potentially going to come back and haunt you if you do that. I certainly think you need to evaluate each situation and make a determination yourself as to whether or not paying bloggers to say good things about you is the best choice, especially if you’re in the middle of a crisis. If there is no disclosure and it’s not obvious that you’ve paid people to say positive things, you may face a situation where a blogger has mentioned to a friend that your company paid them $200 to write something positive and that it was a great way for them to earn money. If that gets out into the blogosphere while you’re under attack, you’ve just made the situation worse.

My advice is to look at other ways to create positive buzz. You can do that with bloggers, but a better approach may be to find a small circle of bloggers who are your friends, who like your product, and are willing to come to your defense without you having to pay them to do so. So there are a lot of tactics to get positive coverage, and we explore them in a lot of detail in the book.

SMS: Do tried-and-true SEO tactics have a part to play in reputation management? Do you think that including an assessment of the nature of high-ranking pages and acting to boost the ranking of positively slanted web pages should become a standard part of any SEO program for an individual or company account?

Andy: Search engine reputation management is definitely a growing industry. I’m seeing a lot more SEOs starting to offer it as a service. It is a service that I myself offer, and it’s probably the most frequently requested service for my business. Individuals or companies come to me with something that shows up in Google that’s negative, and they want to know how they can address it. There are certain things you can do that build upon normal SEO best practices but have a lot more specialty to them. In effect, what you’re trying to do is convince Google that there are 10 pieces of web content that are more relevant than the one negative one currently showing in the Top 10. It’s very hard to do that, since you not only have to create relevant content, but you also have to build links to that content. Sometimes this can be very time-consuming and complex. The best we ever hope for is to push the negative result off the first results page, and maybe get it on to the second or third page. Sometimes it’s just enough to surround the negative result with positive pages.

Search engine reputation management is definitely something that right now tends to be the main focus whenever the issue of reputation management is discussed. This is because this is typically the point where the most pain is. Individuals or companies realize they need reputation management at the point where they are being attacked and where they are seeing their name in Google associated with something negative. As the industry matures, we’ll see a lot more proactive reputation management measures where companies are simply making sure that there is positive content showing up in Google before an attack happens. We’ll also see them looking at the full benefits of reputation management, from interacting with their customers to perhaps preventing the attack from happening in the first place.

SMS: To sum up, what does it mean for a company to be “radically transparent?”

Andy: It’s realizing that you no longer have full control over your reputation and that your stakeholders are looking for a more open dialogue from you than they are currently receiving. It’s engaging in conversations, being more transparent in your process, in your protocols, and in the way you do business. It’s realizing you cannot stick your head in the sand and hope that criticism and feedback are simply going to go away. It’s understanding that your brand is in the hands of other people, and that you really need to work with them in order to create a positive reputation.

Make that leap of faith and you’ll be in a position to begin to take the concrete steps necessary to ensure that your company is “radically transparent.”

About the Author

Andrey Milyan was the first editor-in-chief of Search Marketing Standard, the leading print publication covering the search marketing industry. He has been following and reporting on industry developments for over 10 years. Andrey now works in the paid search sector of a prominent search marketing agency.

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