The Times ran a story this week on how celebrities were using PR agencies to drive bad news that is circulated online away from public’s view – burying it away in pages people rarely visit. Times reporter Billy Kenber followed up his initial piece with further insight on how some agencies work. There is a problem with his piece though, that being the insinuation that it’s solely PR agencies that are behind these shady practices.
Reputation management as we know is not a new discipline within public relations. The skills needed have been around for many, many years. That said, since today we are influenced by what we read online and what our friends and peers share with us the need and demand for online reputation management (ORM) has dramatically increased.
Reputation is at the core of any business. It shapes our trust with brands and individuals. If that trust is challenged we take our business elsewhere, which is why in today’s real-time and connected world it is essential to keep track of how communities can build or break reputations.
Kenber gave the example of Woburn Safari Park who allegedly paid an agency to bury news stories about a critical report from the Department for Environment , Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on the conditions of the animals in its care. Weeks after stories were published The Times reported that the park hired the services of an online reputation management agency. If this is all it did then rightly so one can be critical of how it acted given DEFRA’s findings. Certainly not a way of repairing a reputation.
Online reputation management agencies are not public relations agencies. There is a need for their services, but these should be used as part of a much more strategic campaign. Burying bad news and the associated debate that takes place online is not going job is not going to serve a company good in the long-term. In fact it is likely to do further damage.
Public Relations is about reputation. It is as the CIPR states about ‘the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.’ Key words here are planned and sustained. Making a sustained effort is much more that just burying news, much more that negative briefings. It is in today’s business and consumer environment about real-time decisions that can humanise a brand and assist it in gaining support and the much needed understanding.
There is a need for the skills that Kenber highlights. We have seen plenty of examples of how small businesses have suffered because of critical online reviews that have either been wide of the mark or libellous. We should remember that people have different standards and can quickly mount negative online assaults, often without realising how they are opening themselves up to a legal dispute.
PR agencies do use whatever is needed help organisations protect their reputation. But, it is these PR agencies that use these tools in proportion to what is needed to achieve. If a client or employer has messed up the damage has been done. Doing what Kenber talks about only makes matters worse. A professional communications agency would have advised to stay clear of burying bad online news. Agencies that would do this kind of work, do it without understanding the bigger picture.