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Reputation management used to be about scouring the papers for negative comments and reaching to phone the lawyer. But, with thousands of items posted on social networks and blogs every minute and the inexorable move of media content from offline to online channels, closing off communication is probably impossible, even if it once seemed desirable.

So how do companies and brands protect their reputations online without having to hire the equivalent of a new legal department? A simple answer is to hire an agency but therein lies another issue.

All sorts of firms now promote themselves as experts in social media, online reputation management, media monitoring and technology-related functions that didn't exist a few years ago.

It means that companies are increasingly adopting formal reputation management strategies setting out who and what they want to monitor, how to act proactively and how to respond.

That starts, says Mark Flanagan, partner for digital at Portland Communications, with a willingness to engage.

Risks and benefits

He says: 'Many companies are still fearful of engaging in social media. Of course there are risks but there are also risks of not doing so.

'Without an active digital presence, you will be absent from the conversations and are simply the subject of other people's opinions, whether right or wrong, about your business. If you're online, you can help shape the dialogue, demonstrate a willingness to engage and explain.

'The digital age needs new forms of engagement. We're not just communicating to an audience anymore but to an audience that has an audience of its own. Digital tools have given anyone the means to communicate and connect on the same basis as huge corporations or governments.

Brands no longer control the message. Your reputation is being shaped in social media and it lives for everyone to see on Google.'

Technology can provide part of the solution but creates other problems too. 'There's a proliferation of media monitoring agencies that are clearly aimed at the corporate marketeer,' says Giles Brown, business development director at Social360, a corporate social media monitoring agency set up four years ago.

'There are a lot of companies that provide media dashboards or free online tools. Marketeers love them because they want to see the trends but they don't give the granular detail corporate communicators need about who the influential commentators are, when they're posting and what they're saying.'

BP analysis

Take BP, Social360's first client. When the agency started working for the oil group in the spring of 2010, it was grappling with the corporate global crisis surrounding the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the US coast and the release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

'The volume of discussion on the social web about the issue, in excess of 50,000 posts a day, meant a simple dissemination of every post was not viable,' says Brown. 'In addition, statistical analyses of content volumes or sentiment were not relevant. What was needed was a contextual analysis of the content of social media discussion around the crisis.'

Social360 uses proprietary technology to identify relevant conversations on the social web such as blogs, social media sites and other online fora. Then a team of human editors filters and analyses the findings into concise reports for client consumption. For BP, this meant providing two reports a day, seven days a week that could be read on a BlackBerry while flying over the Gulf in a helicopter.

Over seven months, Social360 processed more than 10.5 million individual social media posts about BP, identifying attempts to post online personal details of key executives, information about non-governmental organisations' protests, brand defacing and fake BP social media sites.

The service also informed BP of previously unidentified areas that had suffered significant environmental damage and flagged up key influencers globally, enabling the company to develop potential response plans.

The delineation of tasks and responsibilities here is essential, stresses Brown. 'We don't provide consultancy,' he says. 'We act for one fast-moving consumer products group that gets 20,000 web mentions a day. Not all of them are relevant.

'We provide refined data but that's where it stops. We don't give strategic advice. It's like conventional media monitoring. You wouldn't ask your in-house team to do it. You need a specialist agency.'

Knowing what's being said about your company online is only the start, however. Social360's services tell clients who are the top 25 influences online and what times of the day they post, but engaging with these individuals is another task altogether, though again it can start with technology.

Murtaza Vahanvaty, an analyst at social media agency SGM Convonix, recommends using social media as a search engine optimiser to try to prevent negative results from popping up on the first page of a Google search under a company or brand name.

After that, he says, it's about selecting the right social media platforms on which to communicate messages and spreading positive messages that people put on the web about your company and its brands.

Thanking people for positive comments is a good start, he advises, while companies should also not be shy about asking people for positive recommendations.

Dealing with negative comments has to be handled more carefully. Caroline Skipsey, director at digital agency Igniyte, says that, where possible, the firm helps companies take legal action against blogs that have posts that breach their own terms and conditions.

Igniyte's work also includes dealing with negative press and reviews, defamation and privacy leaks and personal attacks on directors, helping clients to redress the balance on the social web and get sensitive items removed.

Speed is key. 'The ability to act quickly to deal with negative content online saves reputation in the longer term,' she adds.

'Negative feedback will always cause issues for companies, particularly if it can be found alongside other branded company content. At Igniyte 20 per cent of our clients face issues with negative reviews or comments online that rank highly for a company name search term.'

If a site operator won't remove a negative item, Roei Deutsch, chief executive of online reputation management agency Veribo, says search optimisation can still help.

'If you can't get content removed from the original site, you probably won't be able to completely remove it from Google's search results either,' he says. 'Instead, you can try to reduce its visibility in the search results by proactively publishing useful positive information.'

Reputation management is not simply the job of the corporate communications office now that social media provides the opportunity for executives to interact personally.

Flanagan admires companies whose bosses do it well, citing the use of Twitter and video by Burberry's outgoing chief executive Angela Ahrendts to bypass traditional media and get her messages out.

He also likes Sir Richard Branson's use of social media to position himself and Virgin as thought leaders on innovation and entrepreneurship and says O2 chief executive Ronan Dunne has 'established a unique tone and style on social media' using Twitter to listen to customers and engage with his staff.

Wm Morrison chief executive Dalton Philips, meanwhile, has focused on video to 'bring the company's corporate communications strategy to life online'.

'Communications is no longer a one-way street,' adds Flanagan. 'People expect every organisation to be ready to explain and respond whether or not there's a legal imperative to do so.'

While managing online reputation can be a task shared between corporate communications and other company functions however, Jessica Frost, associate director of crisis and reputation management consultancy Regester Larkin, says a common tone of voice is important.

'Through its speed and breadth, social media can amplify, accelerate and deepen the reputational challenges to which an organisation is exposed,' she says. 'So organisations need to become used to communicating with online stakeholders using a more conversational, human tone. They need to be committed to genuine, transparent and on-going dialogue. And they have to demonstrate a facility with a range of different technology platforms, many of which continue to evolve.'

Frost also believes that online reputation management needs to come together with its conventional media twin.

She states: 'While the tactics of reputation management using social media might be different from that for traditional media, the strategy is not. Online and offline communications work best when the messages, positioning and narrative that underpin both are aligned.

'Progressive communications professionals and organisations have already started to make this a reality by bringing social media into the heart of the communications planning process to ensure that reputation management is conducted across all platforms simultaneously.'

Equally, as with all reputation management, there needs to be a connection between what a company says and what it does.

'Whilst you may be able to move content down or have defamatory comments removed, companies must tackle the issues that reviewers are commenting on if they are to manage reviews in the longer term,' advises Skipsey.