Public Relations vs Reputation Management
The old adage says there are two sides to every coin, and it’s fair to ask if public relations and reputation are not the two sides of a coin.
While some people may quickly conclude a definitive yes or no to the question, it’s more nuanced.
Reputation is something earned, rightly or wrongly, and the mechanisms that produce reputation are often beyond an individual or organization’s control. A company may invest decades in promoting its products and self to the public in a fair and positive way only to fall victim to public opinion because one of the ingredients of those products is found to be environmentally damaging.
A public relations specialist may be called upon to help build, improve, or control the image (and therefore the reputation) of a business or individual. Such a PR specialist’s assignment is clearly determined to be about managing reputation.
But the PR specialist may also play only one role out of many in building or repairing a reputation. This is especially true for large companies with several teams dedicated to marketing and communications.
By contrast, agencies and specialists who provide reputation repair and management service bring different priorities and resources to the table. Their roles and contributions to the process of building or maintaining a reputation may differ substantially from the services provided by the PR specialists.
It’s neither necessary nor inevitable that reputation strategists and PR specialists find themselves in conflict. These two types of experts can work together or independently of each other to achieve similar, non-conflicting goals.
Is a PR Specialist Qualified to Handle Reputation Management?
A trained, experienced PR specialist who understands the challenged faced by a client should have adequate skills and judgment to shape an information campaign that rebuts criticism, answers hard questions, and projects a positive, forward-looking message to the public and media.
These are unquestionably valued, necessary skills for building the brand value and reputation for an organization and its leadership.
It’s a disservice to the long-established public relations field to suggest their skills and work methods aren’t suited to the task of building and repairing reputations.
The PR specialist is trained to interact with the public in a more direct way, often to be the spokesperson for an individual or organization. The PR specialist doesn’t just write the press release or arrange the TV interview. This person should be involved in shaping the message and devising the strategies for its delivery.
But not everything concerning reputation falls neatly into the old school categories.
A Reputation Strategist Uses a Different Set of Skills
As the World Wide Web has grown, and billions of people have become Internet users, the digital aspect of communications management has called for new specialties. Digital reputation management demands different — if similar — skills to those of traditional marketing, communications, and public relations.
The digital specialist focuses on the evolving metrics of online measurement. Whereas print and broadcast media have well-defined and generations’ trusted key performance indicators, the world of digital measurement changes on an almost annual basis.
The Internet is a living laboratory of social and communications experimentation. Metrics that were popular only 5-10 years ago may have fallen out of favor by the time you read this article. A digital reputation strategist must know what technologies are used by the public, the media, and the services that bring these audiences together with information.
The digital information strategist is concerned with delivering a message in a timely fashion via the right channels. A digital reputation management strategist is concerned with assessing the visibility of conflicting messages, monitoring name-spaces for hostile intent, and projecting where content will play an important role in building or sustaining the client’s reputation.
All of these skills can be learned by any intelligent, educated person, but the question your clients should ask is how many hats should they ask any one person to wear?
The jack of all trades is seldom the king of any.
Online Reputation Management More Often Handles Damage Control
People usually feel the need for reputation management only after seeing the blistering attacks against them on social media, the negative news stories that dominate their search results, and the apparent lack of favorable content anywhere that supports their own point of view.
Although the public relations team can schedule interviews with influential reporters, they may not be able to dissuade the reporters from asking difficult questions.
And some news websites allow the public to leave comments on their stories – comments that are often filled with hostile attacks on the people being interviewed.
Media outreach may solve one problem but create another. The public is no longer limited to mailing letters to the editor and hoping their comments will be published or seen by anyone.
Nor is a PR specialist likely to be called upon to respond to an angry blogger. Companies sometimes issue well-worded responses to independent diatribes, but the results of such outreach are unpredictable.
Public Relations and Digital Reputation Management Should Work Together
While the communications or public relations team may be charged with shaping and delivering the message, the reputation management team’s goal should be to find and counteract the online barriers that obstruct the message’s visibility.
A common misconception about reputation management is that it magically makes everything go away. Sometimes a lawyer can have defamatory content removed. Sometimes a PR specialist can convince a news organization to correct a factually misleading story or even to retract it.
But the Internet cultivates angry, unmodulated speech and no matter how incorrect or misleading it may be, so long as it’s presented as mere opinion it is invulnerable to removal. Worse, any attempt to disrupt what is seen as free speech may achieve the exact opposite result.
The reputation management specialist’s task is only occasionally to see that defamatory content is removed. More often the reputation management team must create or promote content that tells the client’s story in a few channels.
Once the communications team have crafted the story the reputation team knows what needs to be seen and where. Their job is to improve the digital visibility of the story.
Digital Reputation Management Strategy Is Keyword-Oriented
A keyword may be a brand name or trademark, an individual or organization name, or a hash tag on social media, or a popular query used on search engines.
The story is broader than a mere set of keywords. The story may spawn the keywords that need protection, or it may create the value in the keywords that need protection.
The reputation strategist’s job is to ensure that the brand message is not drowned out by the random chaos of the Internet. It’s not possible to defend every hashtag or to respond in every query.
But some keywords are more important in terms of shaping public perception.
The communications team may only realize which keywords are important after the public defines them in response to an advertising or marketing campaign. A news story about an obscure trial or legal action may lead people to focus on an unusual set of words.
It’s unfair to the communications and public relations teams to expect them to anticipate every possible response to their campaigns. People are too random to be predictable.
Reputation management doesn’t predict keywords. It identifies them and concentrates on the necessary tasks to ensure that the client’s message isn’t buried under an avalanche of intentionally harmful content.
Hostile Content Is Opportunistic
A public relations specialist’s job is never done. The PR team is often the first line of defense against public discord or media hostility.
But sooner or later the conversation will change.
In an ideal situation, the initial round of conflict is short-lived, allowing the client to move forward.
But the hostile content will still be there. While the communications team takes on new priorities, the reputation management team can deal with what was left behind.
Some aspects of reputation management demand immediate response from the client or their representatives, not “clean-up” in the sense of removal or displacement of negative content. A newly published negative customer review may only require quick attention by the right person.
A public relations team can triage the online content and decide where their skills are best used. When the hostility doesn’t go away, or if the team is assigned new goals, the need for bringing in a reputation strategist becomes obvious.
For some clients, there is only enough budget for a jack of all trades. Maybe that’s a PR specialist or an attorney. Or maybe it’s a reputation strategist.
The skill sets of public relations and reputation management teams will always overlap. They must create content, gauge public and media sentiment, and propose responses to complaints or criticism.
Their roles can be complementary or separate, but they should not be viewed as conflicting or competitive. A reputation management agency has every reason to do their job right and to help all partners succeed.
After all, the agency has its own reputation to think about.