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Online Reputation: A new breed of opinion leaders

Safeguarding a company or brand's reputation is no longer just a case of communicating a series of messages to a reduced group of opinion leaders in the media. When something goes wrong, in minutes the information can appear on a blog, in a comment in a social network, or in an online forum, and, once the damage has been done, it is difficult to fix.

One popular anecdote relating to online reputation management in Spain is about a well known furniture chain. A straightforward search on the Spanish version of Google brings up a series of links, the first two of which are from the corporate site. Number three, however, is a link to an entry from a well known technology blog, relating specifically to this company, titled "How they lie to their clients". In spite of being aware of this situation for over a year, the company in question has not managed to remedy it.

This illustrates the democratising power of internet but also the risks that that power brings. Safeguarding a company or brand's reputation is no longer just a case of communicating a series of messages to a reduced group of opinion leaders in the media. When something goes wrong, in minutes the information can appear on a blog, in a comment in a social network, or in an online forum, and, once the damage has been done, it is difficult to fix.

However, with sufficient anticipation, there are a number of strategies that can be adopted in order to ensure that the inevitable views of disenchanted customers or stakeholders are balanced with the company's messages, thus mitigating the long term effects on reputation.

The most important task is for businesses to themselves participate in the online conversation. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs out there and attempting to influence all of them is impractical. However, most bloggers base their information on each other's opinions so it is much easier to identify the smaller number of 'online advocates' who are capable of influencing the rest.

Secondly, companies should be alert to the kind of stories that may have repercussions online and ensure that their official line is already out there. While many bloggers are amateurs, the more influential are to an extent “professionals” who want to have the truth at their disposal in order to maintain their own reputation. The key is to discover the tools they use to get informed: Social Networks, RSS feeds, news aggregators, etc. and find ways of ensuring that they are never more than a couple of clicks away from our client's viewpoint.

Finally, the limitations facing bloggers in terms of time and resources are an opportunity. If we provide specific bloggers who have already demonstrated their interest in issues relevant to a client with regular first hand industry information, it should not be too difficult to build loyalty and for them to one day come to us asking us for information. However, bloggers do not generally like to be approached by companies trying to 'use' them in order to get free plugs for their service and products. This is where the PR consultancy comes in. In the same way that we have worked for so long in building our relationships and contacts in offline media, good PR consultants are now establishing themselves as the correct path to influencing 'online advocates'. We have been qualifying for this role by being there ourselves, blogging, participating in social networks, and above all, providing something positive to the overall online debate.

Original post in Trimedia blog

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