One of the primary concerns of public relations practitioners is reputation management. Traditionally, PR professionals measured the perception of their brand, products or services through media coverage; whatever was written or broadcast about a company was viewed as indicative of public opinion.
Pre-Internet media monitoring had its advantages. Primarily, the number of media outlets—TV news, newspapers and magazines—was limited. There was a finite number of newspapers where a brand could be mentioned, making finding articles a relatively simple process.
However, there were also disadvantages. Clipping services could be days or weeks behind in preparing reports, and there was little knowledge about how companies were perceived, by competitors or special interest groups, for example, aside from what was reported in the media.
The Web—vast and fast
The Internet has vastly changed the dynamics of how communicators assess and evaluate public opinion.
For a start, there is much more to monitor. The Internet ushered in a plethora of new information sources, including news sites, blogs and message boards, as well as traditional media web sites such as CNN.com and The New York Times.
The Internet also offers few barriers to entry in terms of money or resources. There are millions of blogs on a huge variety of subjects, in addition to swarms of message boards and interest group web sites. And as the number of sources available expands, so does the potential for a brand to be talked about.
Today, reputation is built by many and can change quickly. The prevalence of outlets and the speed at which information is processed can make it difficult for public relations professionals to know where to look. Additionally, the sheer volume of voices has made it a challenge to correctly gauge the importance of each one.
Therefore the challenge for PR professionals is: How do we monitor online perception?
Tools for measuring and monitoring reputation online
As people have adapted to new sources of information, so have the companies that provide traditional media evaluation services. Such services generally fall into two categories—monitoring and measurement.
Online monitoring tools typically offer data about coverage of a brand or company almost instantaneously. Monitoring is ideal for companies that operate in a fast-paced or volatile environment where speed of information is critical to the company’s success. This is particularly so for crises, product launches or one-off events.
Measurement services are suited for long-term reputation assessment. Ongoing measurement of online coverage enables companies to evaluate reputation issues as they change and evolve over time. Advanced measurement tools let companies compare themselves to competitors, gauge changes in tone of coverage, and assess how perceptions have altered, campaign by campaign.
PR professionals now have access to a vast amount of information on how their brand is perceived. Online monitoring and measurement can survey competitor sites, activist sites, message boards, investor groups, blogs and more, while online measurement tools can monitor the volume, tone, and overall quality of coverage and the impact that key messages are having on the public. Reports can be delivered very close to real time—within minutes of a mention of a brand, product or company—and advanced monitoring tools can assess which conversations are the most important, based on readership profiles.
Using online reputation data to build a brand online
Reputation management can be broadly grouped into two categories: short-term and long-term.
Short-term reputation management
Short-term reputation management is most useful for assessing public perception of product launches, product recalls, new hire announcements and crisis communication. For instance, monitoring and measurement services can help to answer questions such as:
- What is the public opinion of the company or product prior to, during and after the campaign/event
- How are the messages being received?
- Has perception of the company changed?
- What avenues of communication worked best?
For instance, online monitoring may have been useful to Apple when it introduced the iPhone, as the product launch was covered in a variety of media sources, including traditional and online. Similarly, a company facing a crisis, such as toy recalls, could monitor various conversations as they spread across the Web, and respond when and if necessary.
In times of crisis, it is essential to know that your monitoring tools are providing useful and accurate information. Spam blogs are prevalent throughout the Web, and without quality monitoring programs, such sites can skew results. By way of example, a blog measurement service was monitoring blog post data for a food products company that had a plant closure due to a salmonella outbreak. During this time, total blog mentions of the company spiked aggressively. Yet the analysis was able to discern spam coverage from relevant mentions, with the result being that the troublesome data amounted to seven-eighths of total mentions—minimizing the scope of the problem significantly.
Long-term reputation management
Long-term reputation assessment encompasses brand management, perception analysis, and tone and style of reportage. It is most useful for companies that are looking to build long-term relationships with their customers and need to be able to understand the ongoing, changing perception of their products, services and brand.
Ongoing online analysis and monitoring gives PR professionals tools to make long-term decisions about brand focus and marketing, and may even influence product development. Taking note of customer feedback and comments over time can reveal trends, highlight what the company is doing well, and illuminate problems.
Dell Computers learned about ongoing online reputation the hard way. Today Dell is thought of by many as one of the better examples of how a company should address consumer concerns raised online. However, it took a PR fire sparked by a well-known journalist who blogged about issues with his computer and Dell’s customer service to move the company to action. Subsequent analysis of the issue showed that problems were observable long before the journalist’s posts, as evidenced by an increase in negative comments for many months beforehand. If Dell had tracked long-term coverage, it may have been able to avoid or at least minimize the ensuing firestorm.
While the prevalence and speed of information available on the Web can create reputation monitoring challenges, there are now tools available that enable PR pros to effectively measure the short- and long-term developments of brand perception, and provide the information needed to amend, enhance, or proactively address issues quickly and effectively.