Igniyte and Communicate Magazine

Igniyte’s Caroline Skipsey featured in an article for the Communicate Magazine, Dark Arts: defending against reputational harm, defamation and online libel requires skill and artistry.

Defending a brand’s reputation can be something of an art. Defending a reputation online is akin to battling the dark arts. Each time a safeguard is put in place, those intending to do a brand harm will find a way around it. Having a plan in place delineating a defence, and offence for that matter, against reputational harm is tantamount in a world run online. Corporate communicators are finding that their responsibilities to maintain a company’s reputation are extending into online reputation management (ORM) as a result.

Business has understood for decades the importance of corporate reputation. Deloitte released a study into strategic risk management in 2013. The research found that 81% of 300 surveyed companies have an existing focus on risk management. Yet, 94% have changed their approaches over the past three years. Extending such board-level risk management tactics to the digital space can be a seamless process, if the correct strategies are in place to begin with.

“The principles are no different to reputation management 15 years ago,” Paul Lockstone, MD of corporate communications at Barclaycard, says. “You had to be aware of what the threat was, prepare in advance and you did what you could in mitigation.” He says ORM should be approached with a similar process in mind.

This in and of itself is something communicators have only realised in recent months – social media is just another channel. The concept of a social media specialist has gone out of vogue as comms directors have begun to integrate social into the rest of the comms mix. Lockstone adds, “Any reputation management processes that you have in place need to address all of your channels holistically. I think it’s quite hard to have an ORM programme or process that isn’t in sync with the rest of your reputation management processes.”

ORM thus, is not just about social, it’s about protecting your brand from harm, regardless of the source of trouble. “Successful ORM strategies require the integration of off- and online communications to ensure that a brand’s digital assets are best placed to serve as an authoritative source of information about a brand. But it is vital for brands to realise that off-line strategies factor in as well,” says Kate Joynes-Burgess, head of digital at Weber Shandwick. Nick Keegan, director at Blue Rubicon, adds, “It shouldn’t just be seen as a defensive, issues management discipline that is designed to protect reputation. The opportunity is far greater – to transform reputations through active campaigning.”

The most important thing, as many comms professionals agree, is to ensure that a brand owns its own content and channels. As they say, a good offence is the best defence. In ensuring branded content and news is released through the company’s preferred channels, communicators can stem the spread of the dark arts.

For Dominic Burch, head of social at ASDA, social has long been used for proactive reputation management as well as consumer engagement, customer service and crisis mitigation. ASDA uses content specifically targeted to its audiences to create engagement on Facebook and, more recently, on Twitter. “We think about it in terms of the ability to reach a large audience of customers who have bought in to what we do,” Burch says. “That didn’t exist three years ago. We’re talking to hundreds of thousands of our most loyal customers. The potential advocacy and word of mouth can be quite vast.”

But as Lockstone says, it’s not about social for the sake of social. Burch agrees, adding, “You need to be there as a brand and when you do it needs to be relevant to who you are and what you do. We sell baked beans, we’re a grocery store; we should spend most of our time engaging with customers who want to shop at ASDA and involve them as much as we can and as often as we can.”

Social media in and of itself is a proactive and vibrant means of brand-building. To actually use it to manage reputation, specific digital tools must be employed. Kate Cooper, MD of social media agency BLOOM Worldwide, says “Digital and in particular social offers unprecedented access to insight into your corporate reputation and audience reactions by providing both qualitative and quantitative intelligence through social listening.”

Burch agrees, “Listening is still the most important part of the social strategy, that’s the bedrock. It’s the foundation of everything else you do.” ASDA’s social media has achieved success in terms of engagement largely because of its dedicated focus on social listening. Burch’s tiny team operates a round-the-clock listening centre that analyses the conversations and content regarding ASDA.

Adam Parker, chief executive of Realwire, which owns Lissted, an online social media listening company, says, “By looking at how people behave online, who they interact with and the relationships that they have, you can gain a much quicker insight. That’s a massive opportunity to get a head start on who is talking about you, or topics relevant to you, including those who may have hovered below the radar.” Sam Cookney, UK market manager at Traackr, agrees, “Identifying and keeping track of their influencers helps cut through the noise and deliver clear, actionable tactics.”

An oft-forgotten aspect of ORM, regards the placement of online advertisements. Project Sunblock helps brands place their adverts only on sites with non-malicious content. This can help brands avoid the trouble faced by Vodafone, Laura Ashley and other major brands following cyber-bullying on ask.fm and a subsequent suicide of a young girl, causing the companies to remove their collateral in order to save face. Andrew Goode, COO of Project Sunblock, says “Ultimately, it’s the brand’s responsibility to ensure their adverts aren’t appearing where they shouldn’t. Advertisers now need to observe and monitor their collateral in an environment which is constantly changing. For this to be manageable; proactivity and remaining one step ahead of the game is key.”

Beyond specific tools, Google, as the world’s homepage, is of concern as it ranks content based on complex algorithms. For a brand to control its ranking, it has to effectively use SEO to boost its own content, rather than let malicious content thrive, says Caroline Skipsey, director at Igniyte, an ORM company. “People only go online when they’re mad. Happy customers don’t go online and there’s loads of stuff you can do about that. It’s all about brand management.”

These strategies, though, can only go so far. When the dark arts succeed, defamation can wreak havoc on a brand’s reputation. The Defamation Act of 2013 went into effect in January as an update to a 1967 law. The act delineates some of the actions a company can take when pursuing legal action against a libelous or defamatory webpage, person or publication. Schillings, was a prominent law firm that changed its focus to reputation consulting after it became apparent that libel law was a dying niche. Rachel Atkins, partner at Schillings, says, “At a time when an innocently placed image on social media can impact the credibility of a business leader and knock business confidence, brands cannot afford to ignore the reputational impact of issues taking root online.”

Skipsey says the law is not the only refuge for battling defamation. Most sites and social networks have terms and conditions in place that allow for the removal of malicious content. They are however, by no means straightforward.

Social was once a new frontier for communicators. That left the door to online defamation wide open. By treating social media as just another channel, albeit a fast-moving, high-impact channel, a brand can better manage its own reputation and protect against the spread of the dark arts or reputational harm. Lockstone says it best, “I think good reputation management in an online context is about understanding what the issues are out in the sector and in relation to your business and being able to deal with issues that emerge. Social media is just another channel.”

Igniyte would be more than happy to help. We are an online reputation management company, based in the UK, that rehabilitates your page one with a steady stream of content optimised for your search term, shifting negative content off page one.