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.

House of Lords member Lord Stoneham of Droxford yesterday used Parliamentary Privilege to make public details of an #injunction that former #RBS Chief Executive Sir Fred Goodwin had on the story that he was involved in an extra-marital affair while the bank was collapsing in front of him.

The comments were made in the Chamber at the Palace of Westminster hours before legal teams met at the High Court to discuss said gagging order, with one party seeking to have it overturned.  Sir Fred himself did not object to the removal of the injunction, which enables the media to run with a story that will put plenty of heat on him once again.

Injunctions and super-injunctions have been making the headlines recently because media outlets have been unable to report on the more salacious stories that are doing the rounds about high-profile personalities.  The pub gossip that people take part is censured.  Some people criticise the judiciary, claiming that it undermines the press.  Others believe that Privacy is a basic human right that requires individual mistakes to not be splashed in the press.

My view is that the press and the individuals using these injunctions and super-injunctions are right.  The problem is that in between both arguments lies what is known as public interest, a term used by the media as a ‘catch-all.’  With this self-regulated tool, the media can invade the privacy of anybody and any organisation.  And there lies the problem.  Organisations need to be accountable, as do the people working for them and for government.  That said, there is a fine line that divides a mistake from the effect it has on an organisation.

The law has always been a tool in the public relations armoury.  Reputation management has used the law to gag a story from being discussed in the media, very much under the impression that if the media is not able to run the story then nobody will know the issues that can be damaging to their clients reputations and trust.  This is naïve, stupid and out dated.  Public relations is rarely able to repair the damage that requires this kind of force.

Yes, there is a need for Privacy and there is a need for injunctions and super-injunctions.  The question is, should they be made available and affordable to everyone?  Yes.  Should there be further debate on which applications receive one?  Yes.  Duplicity and double-standard needs to be outted.  From a public relations perspective, reputation management is always harder when the damage has been done, even though said damage is not yet in the public arena.

How many times have we as PR professionals held our head in our hands wandering how we can repair the damage by some ill-conceived decision or action?

The current debate about injunctions and super-injunctions is of course in the media because details of many of these have been outted to social networking sites.  The fact is that we live in a less media centric world where consumers of news can obtain gossip and stories online.  It is this that smashes the legal structure and protection that the law affords to individuals to protect, rightly or wrongly, the privacy and reputation.  But this in itself is a misnomer, because sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are based overseas in jurisdictions with firm legal structures.

Social and search sites can be notified and given due time to remove content that libels clients.  But this course this course of action to protect one’s soiled reputation carries it’s own risk – reputation is about trust and trust is won and lost in the court of public opinion.  It is the members of this court – you and I, that gathers information and consumes it.  The fact is that we live in a world where there is less control, which is why PR should learn this and work within the new structure that social networking has created.

I have given presentations to a series of law firms, highlighting how social media and it’s central pillar of information sharing, which happens cross jurisdictions can undermine their work.  The skills and ability to share information without leaving a trace is there.  The internet is a channel that crosses geographical boundaries.  There is concern that such tactics are being used within journalism to undermine the case for privacy.  It is a case of cat and mouse, and at the moment the media is the mouse the law is the old lethargic cat.

Social media has become a tool that can undermine law and if not undermine then push it into the 21st century.  For many the law is just a form of censorship that prevents free speech and public interest.  In fact a well-known blog has made available a Google Document listing all the supposed injunctions that currently exist.  Today it is a question of if you search you will find.

Reputations today are being saved and more importantly destroyed by our own human willingness to engage in hearsay and gossip.  Individuals, companies and brands spend a lot on projecting an image that attracts business.  They should be protected, but only if the actions for which they seek an injunction or super injunction are not duplicitous.

Reputation management is today a skill amongst public relations practitioners that requires real-time management.  Controlling a crowd is nigh on impossible.  Once the damage is done an injunction will only act as a plaster.

PRs have to work not just with the legal court, but importantly the court of public opinion, a court that is a well briefed by content that is available online.

BREAKING NEWS:

It appears that a UK Premier League player has started legal proceedings against Twitter to secure the disclosure of the currently ‘unknown persons’.  Legal firm Schillings said in a statement, “to obtain limited information concerning the unlawful use of Twitter by a small number of individuals who may have breached a court order.”

We assume that such action will be taken by a partner law firm in California, though given that the unlawful act has taken place in the UK, a separate legal jurisdiction, it is going to be tricky to see how this works.  Of course, if those people who started the allegations are in the UK then they will not be eligible to America’s Constitution First Amendment, which allows free speech.

Apple's iPhone 3GS. New customers have better deals than O2's loyal customers. This is wrong.
Apple

Britain is a country with little focus on customer care.  In fact for many UK businesses rewarding customers for their spend and loyalty appears to be an after thought.  Rarely do companies invest in their customers so to get them to do the ‘word-of-mouth’ sale on their behalf, which as we know is the best endorsement and way to get new customers in.

Just look at UK mobile phone operator O2, which yesterday released details of it’s pricing policy for the Apple’s much anticipated iPhone 3GS, over which it has exclusive UK rights.  The sting wasn’t the 18-month fee of between £96 and £274 depending on your tariff, but the cost for current customers who signed up for the minimum term this time last year.  Existing customers were told that they would have to pay for the remaining terms of their existing iPhone 3G contracts, which could be anything over £150.  All very different to when O2 offered a free upgrade from the first iPhone to the current hand-set.

You would have thought that pricing policy for such a desirable product would have been developed whereby existing customers aren’t made to feel hostage.  In fact, the sweets have been offered to new customers while existing ones are being ignored.  A big mistake given that many O2 iPhone users have turned against the company, complaining not just about its pricing policy but it’s lamentable 3G nationwide coverage, to name but a few points.

You wonder why the company didn’t think of empowering its customers with new models so to reward them and encourage them to further promote the company and brand to others.  Blogs though are being written picking on all of O2s issues, working to dissuade customers from switching to a company that cares little for their users.

The #O2fail hashtag and Twitition on Twitter have over 2100 people signed-up.  And the blogosphere is certainly working hard to knock O2 where it hurts.  The media is also running stories, with The Daily Telegraph and Sky News highlighting the concerns from loyal customers.

As it stands and having set a populist precedent with the free upgrade between the first and second generation iPhone O2 have a lot to do to stop the steady stream of complains.  It takes a lot to build a reputation and it looks like they’ve forgotten the golden rule of ‘looking after our customers’ first.

Bookmakers Better Bet have signed former Arsenal player Paul Merson as their new Brand Ambassador.  An interesting choice given that Merse claimed some time ago to have lost £7 million on gambling, which led to him being declared bankrupt in 2007.

So why appoint a self-confessed [former] gambling addict as the face of a bookies?  Surely appointing Merson is like appointing La Winehouse as the brand ambassador for the Colombian Tourist Board.

Since those dark days of his, Merson has been a regular on Sky Sports News as a pundit on the Gillette Soccer Saturday show.  So I guess that must have been the clincher for Better Bet; sign-up a pundit that regulars down the pub can recognise and your in the money.  Because I am sure that many people would want to place a bet after seeing Merse, after all, what could go wrong with one little wager, eh?

Brand Ambassadors after all are by nature people that can help promote and advertise a product, company or brand.  They have an element of celebrity that can help the company promote itself and its products in a controlled manner.  They become the human face of the organisation, a person that clients and importantly potential clients can associate themselves with and can help drive sales.  Ambassadors have to be asprational characters that can help get the clients messages through.

Just look at how David Beckham helped Gillette increase sales even with all the gossip that was surrounding him at the time.  Sales of Gillette products in the Far East, where there’s still an obsession with all things Beckham, broke records.  The deal was put together by Hill & Knowlton’s London office and while it was claimed to be one the biggest sponsorship deals the client was pleased with the results of their association with a person that even today is making headlines wherever his career takes him.

Meanwhile, in a statement Better Bet said: “The customers love Paul and can relate to him.”  Before adding: “I don’t know about his gambling problem in the past. He doesn’t hold an account with us or bet with us.”  It’s a kind of bearing your head in the sand after the horse has bolted (at the 3.15 at Lingfield no doubt.  Ed.) comment.

When researching candidates for the position of Brand Ambassador the first thing an in-house PR team or agency must do is analyse how candidates will affect the brand and reputation of their client or employer.  It appears that this hasn’t been done.

Sports sponsorship is an import tool in the PR armoury, especially in the US.  Get it wrong and you damage your brand.  Get it right and everybody wants a piece of the stardust that your ambassador brings to the company.

This is one to watch!

And if you want an alternative view on the deal then read ‘Celebrity Sell Out’s Altenative View of the Merson Campaign.’

***UPDATE***

Today, 26 March 2009, Betting firm Better have annouced that they have dropped their brand ambassador Paul Merson from the advertising campaign due to the large number of complaints they’ve received.  I wonder what they’ll be saying to their PRs?  A serious and harsh word if I were them.

More here: “Betting firm drops Merson from ad campaign.

Social Media - bringing people together
Social Media - bringing people together

Social media appears to be growing up.  The Financial Times ran a special report on Digital Business this week with a lead headline that said it all, “Business starts to take Web 2.0 tools seriously”.  Jessica Twentyman’s article highlighted how, “far from being frivolous distractions, social networking tools can help streamline processes”.

Certainly social media has had an image problem since it was born.  Days didn’t go by without reports of people being caught out and embarrassed by what people posted on YouTube, Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.  Naturally this only tarnished and held back the potential of social media amongst business decision makers who had the power to harness this new form of communication.  Some employers went as far as banning staff from using social media tools in and out of office time.  Their concern was that what their employees got up to out of office hours could damage the reputation and image of their business. I know of one top law firm that has banned employees from using social sites.

But while some businesses were paranoid in the early days about the damage to their reputation by the out-of-office activities of their employees others were busy finding ways to use social media to further develop their brands.  These businesses were keen to enter into a dialogue with the public, working to make them customers.  And this is not an easy exercise as the general public is more cynical than ever before.

Rightly so, business wants to see how “Enterprise 2.0 could deliver real business benefits”.  Translating this corporate-speak into plain English, this means finding how social media can help increase sales.

But there is another cultural problem, currently too many companies in Britain and around the world still see the internet as an add-on to their business models.  Stubborn scepticism amongst businesses leaders, who do not understand the purpose or reason for entering into a dialogue with the public, prevents them for investing into this not so new communication tool and channel.

The equally sad truth is that too many large communications consultancies also see social media as an add-on to the communications plans that they develop for clients.  I have on too many occasions the “we’ll develop a Facebook page for you” only to see nothing new or engaging.  Equally, the blogs that have developed for clients lack real dialogue between the business and the consumer, let it be b2b or b2c.

At a recent P2PR meet in London a number of us agreed that there is a lack of upward education from communications consultancies to clients about the potential of social media.  Having Facebook, YouTube or MySpace pages just isn’t enough.  Even setting up a Twitter account doesn’t make the difference while these are add-ons to clients communication strategies and campaigns.

Social media is about listening to the public and entering into a dialogue with them.  And these dialogues have to be regular, refreshing and rewarding.  It is about making the client a friend of the consumer and working to helping them become a close friend, who celebrates with you the relationship that you have with them.  And how many of us hate it when we don’t hear from friends for some time.  The same applies to social media in business, dialogues have to be constant and creative, bringing in your customers into the business and making them feel part of the experience.  This is how you develop loyalty, or, saying it in corporate-speak ‘brand-loyalty’, which is what all businesses strive for.

Social media is changing.  It is growing up and it needs to be at the centre of communications planning, to develop the brand and protect the company.  This obviously has a cost, but the rewards are for the long-term. Businesses decision makers might think that they can only invest in social media if the metrics tell them that their interaction with clients leads to increase sales, the thinking that has driven adverting for decades.  Well, social media can be measured and communications consultancies can no longer get away with not offering this service to clients.

Wired's front cover
Wired

And as social media grows up, we should be aware that the technology is moving our communication thinking forward, ahead of the game.  While in Hong Kong in January this year I picked up a copy of Wired magazine, which lead with “Inside the GPS Revolution” an insight into how mobile smart phone technology is transforming how users “make connections and interact with the world.”  And these interactions are not just with friends but with businesses as well.  One of their reviews was for Shop-Savvy, a tool that will help you scan a barcode with a phonecam ad tells you how much the product not just costs online but in shops nearby.  It can also pull up reviews to make sure you are not skimping a little too much.

The technology is here.  It is driving business decision-making and driving pricing.  Shouldn’t we be bringing in social media into the centre of communications planning?  Is having a branded Facebook page enough?

Adidas's Facebook page
Adidas

I’ll tell you something, I’m on Facebook and I am a fan of Adidas.  I signed up to their Facebook page some time ago, hoping to get updates from the company.  I didn’t get anything.  There was little dialogue from them, until I got a message telling me how they’d had a ‘secret party and I could see the ‘cool’ pictures of what looked like a celebrity bash somewhere.  Erm, I signed up online so that I could be one of the first.  That message they sent didn’t bring me in to the brand and it did not make me feel closer.  It was not the social media experience that consumers should be subjected to.  Adidas, in my mind, doesn’t get it right.  Will the rest of business understand it?

It is up to us PR and communications consultants to champion social media.  Communication helps and in these challenging times we have to be creative and use new tools for us and the benefit of our clients.