What is online reputation management and what does it tell us about the future of public relations as conducted online?

There are two characteristics of online reputation management which make it significant for those of us interested in the business of advocating and communicating online. These may be accurate; they may be preconceptions.

  • First, the very concept of reputation management seems to imply the possibility of shady and unaccountable puppet-masters interfering with the proper order of things. What are online reputation managers if not the spin doctors of the Twenty-First Century?
  • Second, the very existence of reputation management appears to reveal the chaos at the heart of the Internet. Are opinions so easily manipulated?

Let’s begin with the basics. A business or person can hire a reputation management company to generate positive coverage online. They’ll often do this in response to negative coverage, existing or forthcoming. Online reputation management companies try to ensure that the first page of search results for their client tell favourable stories about that client.

Wikipedia’s list of reputation management activities reveals two types of service:

  • proactive services to get stories onto the first page of results;
  • and reactive services to get other stuff off that first page. 

Most of these activities are completely legal; some, such as DDoS attacks, are not.

The Ethics of Reputation Management

As a relatively new service, the ethics of online reputation management are still being debated. Because there is a lack of understanding about what online reputation management involves, there are also assumptions that these must be shady practices.

Not unfairly, one might assume that only someone who has done something wrong would require an external reputation manager. That manager, in turn, acts unethically in disguising their client’s wrongdoing. The title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal gives a flavour of how the industry is currently perceived: ”How the 1% Scrubs its Image Online.” 

Online reputation management, ironically, has a very poor online reputation!

While it’s true that some companies will do unethical and even illegal things for money, online reputation management is essentially value-neutral. It’s the latest in a series of practices that use rhetoric and argument to change opinions in the public sphere. In this sense, online reputation management follows – or, more accurately, is a subdivision of – political campaigning, marketing, and advertising.

Reputation Management in an Age of Distraction

With each exposé of reputation management abuses, we learn a little more about the methods, ethical and unethical, of reputation management companies.

The Wall Street Journal article, above, describes the method of one such company as “a favorable news blitz to eclipse the negative stories.” When Lynton Crosby’s firm came under scrutiny last year, it was accused of creating “a network of Facebook campaigns,” presented as independent organisations, to agitate for the clients’ causes.

This phrase, “news blitz,” is significant. This is an approach based on blasting channels like Google, Facebook, and Twitter with an overwhelming quantity of content, however low quality it may be.

The success of this approach reveals the importance of the glance in how we consume media: 

  • We glance at Google results to get an impression of a new subject.
  • We glance through hashtags to get a real-time take on a rolling story.
  • We glance at headlines to get a sense of what’s happening in the world.

I read an article today, about Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable, which reports that 20 years ago, the average attention span was 12 seconds. Now, it’s 8 seconds.

Because we rely so heavily on the glance, and surface reading, we respond to quantity. Or, rather, the dominant online channels respond to quantity: the number of stories, tweets, shares, likes, and so on. That’s why “news blitz” reputation management can work: it assumes we’ll only glance at the content.

We are, as T.S. Eliot wrote sometime around 1935, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”

Quantity sits uneasily alongside quality in public relations. We know that quality should trump quantity. However, it’s also easy to observe how a barrage of stories from lesser-known sources can occasionally set an agenda just as effectively as a “better” story in a “better” outlet.

Reputation Management and the Future of Digital PR

Let’s imagine that online reputation management is the ungoverned frontier of digital PR. What do the “news blitz” practices described above tell us about the direction in which digital PR is moving?

Here are three suggestions.

1) Chasing the Algorithm

As Google continues to be the place where reputations are brokered and broken, anyone who can “game” its algorithm will wield significant power. This isn’t necessarily as pernicious as it sounds. After all, SEO is already an effort to attract algorithmic attention.

SEO-friendly website text
The “no bullshit” landing page for The Old Nun’s Head, a cracking pub in South London.

“Quality content” (a dreadful phrase!) might come to be defined less by its value to a readership and more by its value to the algorithm. Again, not necessarily pernicious. People have always written for the medium as much as the audience. Just look at Ernest Hemingway’s “cablese” or the three-minute pop song.

2) The End of Storytelling

Stories occur in time. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. When we engage with print and broadcast media, we experience the roll-out of stories across time. From day to day, hour-to-hour, the story unfolds.

Online, however, everything comes at once. Algorithms disrupt narrative.

And, so long as those algorithms remain obscure, there remains an element of chaos in what gets promoted and what doesn’t.

Reputation management practices demonstrate, for digital PR more broadly, the need to think of stories as cumulative but not necessarily sequential. Sometimes, communications campaigns will require phased delivery. Other times, the message simply needs to be repeated over and over again, because the audience won’t necessarily be hearing the message in the correct chronological order.

3) AI and Reputation Management

The CIPR is leading the way in analysing how developments in AI are affecting the PR profession. Some companies are now offering algorithm-led social media and crisis monitoring. These services can run 24-7, keeping tabs on online discussions even when the person being discussed is fast asleep. The algorithms can spot reputational issues much sooner than humans can.

On the flipside, content can be authored, published, and shared by AI. If quantity does have some influence – that is, if the “news blitz” approach continues to work – then AI-generated content bombarding the algorithms poses a real challenge. For those of us working in digital PR, the choice will be either to shape AI that can work for us, or to combat and render redundant the “news blitz” approach.