The Online Reputation Management Integrated Model: a roadmap for the management of digital corporate reputation

I developed and published in my doctoral thesis (2015) the Integral Model of Corporate Online Reputation Management – MiROC  so that organisations can structure their plans to achieve four general objectives: a) create; b) maintain; c) defend and d) recover the reputation in the digital environment. Monitoring (or web analytics) is a transversal element of the model as it feeds the organisation with real-time information about users, relevant topics, competence and the level of engagement that is being generated with its stakeholders.

After defining the objectives, at the next level is dedicated to strategy formulation, which I call Engagement Strategy and it follows the typology of strategies described by Beal and Strauss (2008) based on the paradigmatic case happened with the company Dell and its reputation crisis known as «Dell Hell» (Del Vecchio, Laubacher, Ndou and Passiante, 2011). The strategies are the following:

  • Listening Strategy: it is the most basic level of action in the digital space, with little interaction, where the online presence occurs simply to extract information so the organisation can use it as another source of intelligence in their business plans.
  • Dialogue strategy: it is when the company starts to move towards a dialogical relationship admitting the existence of the other (Internet users), but not necessarily assuming positions and making changes in their business behaviours. But, undoubtedly, the level of engagement is superior to the previous phase.
  • Response Strategy: this level implies, from the dialogue with the interested parties, the openness to offer answers to the concerns of the users, in a level of dialogue more accentuated and, perhaps, risky, but these answers do not necessarily mean the acceptance of the proposals/ideas of the users. The answer can be both a «yes» and a resounding «no» to their requests, complaints, etc.
  • Change Strategy: this level involves the co-creation of meaning and value between the company and the users. It is the highest level of engagement because it signals to users that the company is «embracing» collective intelligence and acting with users in the search for negotiated solutions. It is not easy because, basically, this strategy implies a almost a «partnership» between the organisation and its stakeholders.
Implementing the model

It is obvious that the strategy of Change is much more complex than that of Listening, since there is much more investment of resources from the part of the organisation (and from the stakeholders, as well). However, this definition is essential as it indicates how the organisation wants to achieve its objectives through its online reputation plan. The strategy is not necessarily for the whole company, it can be defined at the corporate or at the business unit/brand level. Therefore, there can be more than one digital strategy in an organisation (and this is more habitual, of course).

From the moment you define what you want with the online presence qne how you are going to achieve that (the strategy), it is time to create the «foundation» of the online presence: content and participation management.

Content management involves the use of the platforms available in the different digital domains according to the topology proposed by Donovan (2009). The company may decide to create static content, such as web pages, or create a dynamic presence on social media according to the strategy defined previously. Without this content it is not possible to «occupy» the web, and therefore it is commonly said that «content is king». This is proprietary content («owned»), not customer generated content (CGC). However, if content is king on the Internet, in the social web participation is the queen. Participation management refers to the protocols that must be followed by company’s representatives to act «live», and a key part of this process is the work of the community managers and moderators. Participation activities are directly related to the conversational and relational system, and clear protocols are needed to establish behavior guidelines in the interactions with users.

The action plans

From these key elements of digital presence, it is possible to define specific action plans that correspond to the conversational, relational, referential and expository subsystems. These blocks provide the framework for the execution of digital activities, and the first four are dedicated to proactive action, and the fifth to reactive action (crisis management):

  • Viral marketing plan: It is related to the conversational and expository subsystems and includes digital word of mouth or buzz communication actions. It is the new advertising on the social web, which creates content that will be shared or mashed up by users. Very often, companies starts this “viralisation” with advertising / paid media to start the «contagious» process.
  • Search engine positioning plan: according to Clippinger (2011) «there is no greater reputation creator than Google», and in fact it is very common in the professional literature to associate online reputation management solely with the activity of «cleaning» the name of the company in the search engines or to get a better position for companies and their products on Google’s first mentions. I consider that this task (known as SEO-Search Engine Optimisation) is fundamental, but it is not the only one in a comprehensive management plan like the one I propose. This plan also includes the paid activities (SEM-Search Engine Marketing) and it is referencial by nature
  • Online user experience management plan: this plan is responsible for the interactions with users from the perspective of usability and interactions through representatives of the company in the digital environment. It is closely associated with the field of electronic commerce and customer service and corresponds to the relational subsystem.
  • Online public relations plan: these are public relations activities aimed at influencers, such as certain bloggers of interest to the organisation, and who may or may not refer to an explicit action of paid advertising/sponsorship. This plan may contain actions that correspond to the conversational or expository subsystems.
Online crisis management

The fifth block of the model is related to online crisis management and online issues and risks. These are risks that challenge the conventional strategy of crisis management (Aula, 2010) and can be, for example, lies, half-truths, manipulated images, leakages, and also harassment, deceptions and ridicule (Fertik and Thompson, 2010). On the other hand, social media can be used to help in cases of crisis that do not occur on the Internet, as an additional element in the crisis communication plan (Wendling, Radisch and Jacobzone, 2013). It is a particular area of my interest, and was the subject of my previous blog (2011-2014) and the subject of my thesis.

As we can see, several  specific objectives can be defined by an organisation in its online reputation plan at strategic and tactical levels. However, I highlight that, in terms of reputation, the final results sought by the model are very clear: that an organisation is known, be known for something and obtain a general favourability – the pillars of any reputation program, digital or not.

How corporate discourse can be deconstructed in a social media crisis: my PhD thesis is more actual than ever

I can see how the lessons that I learned with my PhD thesis, presented in the end of 2015, is now more actual and necessary than ever. The key themes of the thesis were crisis management, social media, branding and online reputation management, which I approached using a study case and content analysis of a major advertising campaign aired in 2011 by a leading Spanish bank. This campaign was ridiculed by social media users, especially in Twitter, and was also a target of a YouTube parody video.

Following up my thesis, there have been several incidents happening to prestigious brands similar to this one. Chevron´s “We agree” (2010) was mocked by activist group The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. More recently, another “faux pas” examples could be when Coca-Cola was forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And exactly during the following week of my thesis presentation, it was IBM that faced social media´s anger: IBM has discontinued a campaign encouraging women to get into technology by asking them to “hack a hairdryer”, which the company admitted the campaign “missed the mark for some” and apologised. There are a plethora of cases more recently, and I presented an update of the thesis with more examples in a conference in Lisbon in October 2017.

Why a communication initiative can be a factor of risk for a company?

Usually, companies only sponsor messages that can affect positively its image. However, in these times of social media activism and permanent criticism, this goal is not easily achieved as in the pre-social media era. In the case study I analysed in my thesis and backed up by the literature review,  what I found was:

  1. A primary goal for corporate communication, used as a management function, is to facilitate relationships and symbolic exchanges with the stakeholders of an organisation, and thus establish and maintain a favourable reputation. Increasingly, corporate communication has taken on a more strategic role within organisations in order to help to legitimate them among its stakeholders through impression management techniques. However, at the same time the context of corporate communications has been levelled off by the proliferation of content generated by users on the Internet, which also affects stakeholder’s perceptions, through framing techniques
  2. When this happens, social media can empower consumer and other stakeholder’s resistance, especially social movements, creating reputational risks and crises caused or amplified by online social networks. Organisations must be concerned about these crises  (or “paracrises” as Coombs defines it) and their impact on reputation and legitimacy due to the evolution of the concept of Surveillance Society, where anyone with a mobile phone can now “surveil the surveillers”.
  3. Organisations are increasingly subject of higher public scrutiny by social networks whose some of their users(for any reason) have a strong distrust in corporate discourse and can build and share a counter-discourse. Through their actions on the Internet, social networking operatives make organisations more publicly vulnerable by exposing the contradictions of the corporate rhetoric and creating antagonistic frames for the corporate discourse. Typical rhetoric devices used by activists are brandjacking, parodies or culture jamming.

My thesis addressed a paradigmatic case study that took place in Spain with a large bank (Bankia) and its major advertising campaign which aired in 2011 during the global financial crisis. Similar to the examples mentioned in the beginning of this post, this campaign was heavily criticised (but it was not pulled). Through the data mining and analysis of messages dispersed via Twitter  during the campaign period(more than 30,000), I found empirical evidence that shows how corporate discourse can be deconstructed by social media users, which is a basic principle of online activists and its repertoire of confrontation.

What I found is that when a company does not take into consideration the shared cognitive capital of the message recipients and the social context in which the organisation operates they are more vulnerable to be contradicted by messages disseminated by social media users that, naturally, question the credibility and intentions of the source and its corporate messages.

In cases with these characteristics, communications do not act as a positive force in favour of the brand and the reputation of the organisation. It works contrarily to what is expected, i.e. it is a shoot in the foot.

Facebook´s ugly face (1/4)

In this high-profile reputation crisis involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica I pose a reflection: Is it possible for a multinational organization to be apolitical? This is one of the main ethical challenges of any multinational, but that is even more important when a company is not simply involved in the business of selling products and services, such as gasoline, shoes or perfumes. In the case of Facebook, which self-defined it ambitiously as a company that wants to ‘make the world more open and connected’, it is clear that it is quite complicated. The mission of the company enters in the collision route with the right to privacy and the power of those who use our data in advertising via Facebook as a weapon of influence.

In this sense, the #DeleteFacebook initiative, although it will seldom affect the company, is an interesting indicator of a possible change of social mood in relation to the nice blue company. That’s because the initiative expresses a rejection and the growing awareness that social networks, and in particular Facebook as its main actor, is not as innocent as their smiley faces or thumbs up icons. Or the posts of dogs and cats.

In this crisis of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica what we see clearly is the questioning of the ethics of a company by the way in which:

  1. Manages the data it has gotten from people: the myth of transparency
  2. Understands the private realm as something commercially profitable: the «monetization of our online footprint»
  3. Ultimately, manages stakeholders’ trust

It is an extremely complex case with implications for any company that moves in the digital economy.  Such companies need some parameters about how to make their strategic decisions when these three aspects face their businesses. In the next three posts I will try to address these points. To be continued…

Online Reputation is a reality

Online reputation is a topic that I have studied since 2008 when Barack Obama became the first US “social media president”.  Since then, I have worked to understand how the Internet could be used to create a reputation based on the online footprint organisations and people leave on the Internet.

In 2013, I presented at the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole (France) a scientific article in co-authorship with Dr. José Piñuel Raigada, my thesis supervisor and professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. The symposium was called E-réputation et traces numériques: Dimensions instrumental et Enjeux de Société. My article addressed an increasingly relevant aspect of social pressure in organisations, which is online activism. After many years since those pioneering times, I see that the construction of the reputation mediated by digital technology is a fact, despite the initial skepticism of some more orthodox authors. Possibly they lacked the necessary models and background to understand what is, in short, a different world with different rules. Fortunately, I have made the transition from offline to online since 1997 with the beginning of the commercial Internet.

The fact is that today is unthinkable a minimally sophisticated company operating without making use of the central elements of online reputation management. In my opinion these are, in basic terms: a monitoring system, a strategic plan to develop the presence and interactions in the digital ecosystem (website, social networks, apps, etc.), and the key plans of a tactical program to create and sustain online reputation. These plans are: a viral marketing plan, an online PR plan, the optimised presence in search engines via SEO or SEM, the online customer experience and, finally, risk and crisis management plans in place to handle empowered stakeholders, such as online activists.

The importance of traditional media in the construction of the reputation continues to exist, but, as  we could see in the recent scandal of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the territory of the construction (or destruction) of the reputation of individuals or companies is getting more and more online. Trust is increasingly more digital and less analog.