Shaping Reputations Online

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We are living in a new media world where public conversations bring together people from all over the globe. Thanks to the Internet, individuals from every continent are able to create a buzz that can introduce new heroes or ruin an organization’s reputation in minutes.

For example, take a look at this conversation on Flickr, an online photo management and sharing application, under the headline “Can’t See Any Images”:

One user comments: All photos and buddy icons are little red crosses. Anyone else?

Flickr Staff replies: It seems that access to our image servers is being blocked for users in much of China. Our technical staff has looked into this at depth and determined this is not a technical issue from our end. We will keep an eye on the situation and update if we get any developments.

Another user comments: You can do things other than just wait and see. Put a post on official blog to state the situation, that will help us a lot.

A fourth user comments: Imagine if you logged on and could not view a single image? Imagine if your friends, family, contacts couldn’t either. Imagine if the entire population of America couldn’t? and then imagine that there was not a single accessible announcement addressing it! This is a BIG deal. Many blogs and different news media will pick this story up and sadly, this thread is the closest thing to information on the subject (and it is unreachable by almost everyone effected! [sic]). Really is sad and I truly hope it can be addressed in an appropriate way. Some sort of announcement (that can be accessed by Chinese users) is required!

This conversation continues, and thousands of conversations like it are happening right now on social media applications like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Second Life, Twitter and many others.

The bigger brother
Why is this conversation important? Because China is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world and a key player in the emerging global order. But along with product recalls and trademark infringements, China is facing a number of key reputation issues that can be read about in thousands of online conversations like the one outlined above.

Governments, corporations or any individual can be exposed in online conversations made by any one of today’s more than one billion Internet users. That’s pretty impressive for a medium that did not exist 15 years ago. Now it’s one of the most powerful shapers of public perception.

Crowd-sourcing or open sourcing, social networking, and Web 2.0, are proof that information can become more valuable as more people use it. Companies like Wikipedia, Linux or Mozilla’s Firefox have developed successful business models and made major advancements in product development thanks to the power of sharing online.

If we look at the way reputations are built, the online channel is no longer a secondary one. Consider these examples. A new recruit announces on his blog that he will be working for a new company even before he tells his current company’s HR department. Viral marketing campaigns spread rumors within hours making new products succeed or fail in a matter of hours. New opinion leaders voice their ideas online and affect consumers directly. Eye witnesses are the first to break news online and their stories get picked up by TV, radio stations and the print media. In one way or another, they all rely on the Internet to enhance and promote their brand or reputation.

The new online world is here to stay and has become more and more significant to building corporate reputations. It requires a new perspective for businesspeople, and brand and communication professionals. Building brands and shaping reputations now requires full-time professionals thinking about and acting on the digital side, and in real time.

From strategy to action in minutes
Online, conversations are happening in real time, and we are rarely able to anticipate where they will lead. It’s no longer typical to be able to call your CEO and tell her that there will be a story about her in the morning edition of the newspaper, that the media relations department had the time to review, and that they added figures that the reporter initially left out. Instead, you are more and more likely to be searching the Internet for news about your company, or getting an alert where your company name is mentioned dozens of times in one single day, in outlets that are beyond your control. And something even more serious is that that news will be archived online and available for years, just one click away.

You cannot manage reputations online without huge doses of proactive communication. In order to make corporate or product brand identity understood, respected and loved, managing advocacy has become a must. It is not enough to behave consistently and responsibly, respecting corporate values, developing superb products and services, hiring and retaining the best talent, or being a good corporate citizen.

Today, organizations are required to have advocates and supporters that lead public conversations—professional observers that monitor and act on multiple online conversations—in order to deliver the corporate strategy through effective communication and stay ahead of trends. In order to be ahead, communicators have to become specialists in social media, just as they did with print or broadcast media in the past. Online conversations deserve as much time—probably more—than pitching stories for major business media or trade magazines.

Brand, marketing and communication professionals are facing a challenge that requires new sets of skills and sensitivities. Reputations are now built and damaged online, and companies have to be able to create mutual trust and loyalty with communities.

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