‘Search engines have become reputation management engines’

Q&A with Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist, Weber Shandwick

‘Search engines have become reputation management engines’

How critical is reputation management for companies today? Are they recognising it as critical?

The reputation of a company is its most competitive asset. A company needs to understand what its reputation is and it should understand how to build it and maintain it. It should be prepared to know how to restore it and repair it, if it faces a crisis.

Some of the research that we have done globally shows 86 per cent of the executives said that they were increasing their focus on reputation. This shows that around the world reputation is definitely on the agenda for CEOs and boards.

Are Indian brands serious about reputation management? How are they warming up to it?

I think it’s really important in India too. You have some amazingly large powerful companies that are going global. It is very important for them to understand and build their reputation around the world. You also have local companies that are very important to the economy here.

I don’t have numbers for the Indian executives but in my opinion around 80 per cent or more executives in India are concerned about reputation. Companies need to grow their businesses and need to get into other markets. For this to happen, reputation is critical. One of the things that we have seen is that companies have to build the brand as a parent company. Today consumers care about the reputation of the parent company and the quality and assurance of a company that is producing ‘safe’ products. 

How is the reputation management space evolved over the years - globally and in India?

Five years ago, I would say that reputation was important, but not as much as it is now. Social media existed, but it wasn’t like it exists today. Social media is about 10 years old now. I think five years ago, we thought of social media as a corporate website and that’s how companies communicated. But today, we are seeing that companies are connected on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google + etc. to stay in touch with consumers. These mediums don’t only give connection options, but also ways for companies to lose control of their reputation. Online reputation management has created a sea change in the world of reputation management.

How do PR agencies like yours tackle the instantaneous flak received on social media?

That’s a big part of our business today. It’s a big part of the agency’s businesses, on helping companies manage their communities. Companies have a lot of Facebook fans, Twitter followers and they need to be managed. Agencies manage 100 such communities for companies and they need the skill and the focus on communicating with our customers. We monitor what’s been said online about the company we handle, and what are people talking about their consumers. We are also trained to handle criticism online or a firestorm online. We are very involved in the digital landscape.

Does Weber Shandwick handle reputation management along with PR duties in India? Is it a part of the regular PR mandate or is it a separate vertical?

I think till a couple of years ago it was a separate offering, but today with the increased focus on digital, reputation management is infused to our agency work. In agencies, it’s horizontal and reputation management crosses all the work we do.

What have been the biggest learnings in the reputation management space?

The biggest learning is that search engines have become reputation management engines. When you want to look up or find out about a product or a person, we head to these search engines. I don’t go beyond the first page in making up my mind about the perception of a product or person. We have to really work on this, because sometimes we have only about 15 seconds.

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3 October 2014