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Reputation under fire: grin and bear it or take the offensive?

February 21, 2011 by Jonathan Hemus

A recent article in the Economist reported that the best response to inaccurate online rumours was to ignore them, and instead communicate a barrage of good news.  This, the article contends, is the best form of issues management.

I only half agree.

Certainly, building a positive perception based on a strong and compelling corporate narrative should be the priority for any business which values its reputation.  Brands such as Virgin, Apple and Tesco have consistently communicated their vision and values to their stakeholders.

As a consequence, stakeholders have a very clear understanding of who they are, what they do and what they stand for.  Crucially, their experience of products and services reinforce the messages they have received (where the experience fails to live up to the words, a business creates a transitory image, rather than a substantial reputation).

But where I disagree with the article is in the suggestion that untruths should always be left uncorrected.  Unchecked rumour, gossip and innuendo can become accepted as fact and cause significant damage to corporate reputation.

Here are three steps to define an appropriate response to an inaccurate allegation:

1) Be aware that the allegation exists

Effective online reputation management depends upon knowing that there is a possible problem: many organisations have been unable to regain control of a situation simply because they became aware of it too late.  Ensure that you have thorough on and off line monitoring in place so that you can spot an issue before it becomes a crisis.

2) Evaluate its potential influence and impact

Deciding which allegations to respond to and which to ignore requires you to assess the influence of its originator.  A lone blogger is probably worth leaving alone; it would be foolish to ignore criticism from the BBC’s Robert Peston.  Knowing beforehand the online influencers who really affect your stakeholders means that you can make well-informed judgements.

Assessing the potential damage of the allegation will also help to determine your response.  Mild criticism of a product is part of day to day business life; allegations of endemic corruption call for pro-active crisis communication.

3) Calibrate your response accordingly

Sometimes, a policy of non-engagement is indeed the right decision: a high profile response may create the oxygen of publicity that a scurrilous allegation requires.  On other occasions, a professional and straight forward response within the forum in which the comment appeared will help to balance the debate.

If that’s insufficient, a statement to the media and reassuring messages via your own communication channels (websites, blogs and Twitter feeds for example) may be the best way to get your perspective across, without directly engaging with your misguided critic.

In extreme and rare circumstances, legal action may be necessary to remove a clear untruth.  Be aware though that action of this kind often leads to exactly the kind of widespread publicity that you were seeking to avoid and trigger a much bigger dose of crisis management than the original allegation ever could.

There are no hard and fast rules for dealing with inaccurate criticism, despite what the Economist article suggests.  Judgement will always be required to do the best thing to protect the value inherent in your corporate reputation.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

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