The inexorable rise of 'web 2.0' - shorthand for the second generation of the internet - is creating both enormous headaches and tremendous opportunities for anyone involved in safeguarding or building brand and corporate reputation. This explosion of blogs, online communities and other forms of user-generated content is influencing PR strategies.
'In an age of blogs, wikis, podcasts and citizen journalism, there are more media for the public to give opinions or vent about anything - a company, product or customer service - which can help make or break a brand,' says Firefly managing director Mark Mellor. 'The PR industry has to adapt to this environment and move to a "PR 2.0" approach, to engage with the web 2.0 environment and react to whatever it presents.'
There is evidence that the influence of blogs on corporate reputation is growing, so understanding them is crucial for PR agencies. Among the key findings of Hotwire's Blog Impact Barometer 2006 research, in conjunction with Ipsos/MORI, was that 25m adults in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have changed their minds about a company or its products after reading comments or reviews on a blog. It also revealed that 34% of people decided not to purchase a product after reading comments on the internet from other customers or individuals. Perhaps most interestingly, the survey discovered that blogs are second only to newspapers as the most trusted source of information; 24% of respondents consider them a trusted source, behind newspaper articles (30%), but ahead of TV advertising (17%) and email marketing (14%).
The blogosphere can be a daunting environment for companies, as consumers are defining what a brand means to them and sharing these thoughts with others, rather than having the company's own view forced on them. As a result, the methods employed for managing corporate reputation and responding to criticism have to change. For example, it is essential that policies and training are put in place for employees who blog, together with guidance on how to participate in online conversation. There have already been high-profile legal cases involving staff who have written defamatory things about their employers in personal blogs. The most notable example involved a Waterstone's employee, who was fired last year as a result.
Savvy PR strategies are recognising that social media present a great opportunity for companies to create dialogue between employees and customers. Corporate blogs, for example, can be an effective communications channel - but only in the right circumstance. It seems that too many companies have still not thought through the reasons for introducing one. 'There is a lot of hype, with many companies keen to set up a blog or develop podcasts without considering how this fits with their brand or wider marketing strategy,' says Porter Novelli UK managing director Jean Wyllie. 'For example, in recent research carried out by Porter Novelli and Cymfony, we found that 63% of respondents were driven by the need to participate in the medium, rather than to meet a specific communications objective.'
If you believe that you can control what people think, you will fail. Companies should make sure that whoever creates a blog site is aware of the prevailing social media principles. Lack of disclosure, transparency and honesty may create a negative 'bloglash' or 'blog swarm'. Companies that engage in duplicitous blogging risk inflicting huge damage on their image.
'Blogging is all about communication and two-way conversation,' says Immediate Future managing director Katy Howell. 'That is why it belongs to PR, as we are people who create relationships. We have the skills to help companies become transparent, open and honest. All agencies should have some kind of rapid-response team to deal with negative comment.'
Howell assesses online crises by asking whether a story is true, whether the site is influential and whether the story is likely to spread. Only once these questions have been answered should a response be chosen. Understanding this is the difference between good PR and a brand in trouble.
CASE STUDY - LG MOBILE
When it came to launching its innovative Chocolate phone, LG Mobile recognised the influence of social media in driving purchase recommendation.
As well as traditional marketing activities, launch agency Hill & Knowlton's social-media team built relationships with bloggers, sending them pre-release versions of the phone. Responses and reviews, both positive and negative, were posted on LG's own blog, chocolate.lgbloggers.com, along with information about the campaign and the people running it.
A video that one blogger included in his review of the phone was posted on YouTube, and was viewed almost 22,000 times in a week. A leading technology portal emailed LG, asking that its review of the product be included on the brand's blog, and at one point the blog ranked as high as sixth when the phrase 'LG chocolate review' was typed into Google.
Transparency and authenticity were key to success; at no point were bloggers asked to write about the phone, and the identity of the agency and its relationship with LG was made clear from the outset.
'The results were phenomenal,' says Hill & Knowlton worldwide director of marketing technology Niall Cook. 'On an average day, mentions of the Chocolate phone on blogs exceeded those of competitor handsets from both Samsung and Nokia.'
About 1.7m Chocolate handsets sold worldwide in the first two months following the London launch.