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Online Reputation Killers And How To Handle Them

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Coalgate! Tata Power says Ta Ta to ethics. @aradhikamehta: It’s sensational what I can accomplish while holding on to an Airtel customer care call — make an omlette, suryanamaskar, run a marathon.

@PritishNandy: These @vodafoneindia guys are worse than a Govt office. They are officious, lazy, unhelpful.

Poof! Is that someone’s image we just saw evaporating into thin air? Taking with it all those millions spent on brand building? Today, it can take a mere hour’s worth of social media to mess up a brand’s credibility and reputation.

On the other hand, making the right moves online can send reputations soaring sky high. Trigger-happy tweeters, bloggers, YouTube visitors, Facebookers and reviewers have forced companies to invest in a whole new important activity — online reputation management, or ORM, as it is called.

Heavy-traffic sites such as TripAdvisor, Mouthshut and Glassdoor, where customers do not hesitate to post what they feel about a brand — true or false — are only adding to the challenge. Brands are also learning the sad truth that mischievous competitors can use online forums to create nightmares for them.

With social power showing that it has the muscle to engineer revolutions, fight proxy wars, and amplify the teeniest of things into a viral phenomenon, companies now have no choice but to be where their customers are: online, and active. Comscore data shows that 1.2 billion users — 82 per cent of the world’s online population — visit social networks. Of India’s estimated 121 million Internet users, 95 per cent visit social sites.

Though netizens may constitute only a small proportion of India’s billion-plus people, they are disproportionately influential, with some of their opinion getting on to other media as well. This is one of the most compelling reasons why Indian companies need to get their social strategy right.

There are enough examples of organisations that have been badly singed in online fires — Dell being a textbook example (see ‘Dell’s Hell And Back’). Gap, HCL, NBC, McDonald’s and Dove are some other big brands to have suffered online wrath. Recently, a blogpost caused extensive damage to Progressive Insurance’s image in the US. Ironically, even Facebook and Twitter have faced intense criticism on their pages.

As far as reputations go, Dell’s took a bad hit. In 2005, a time when people had still not understood the extent to which control had shifted from company to customer, ‘Dell Hell’ erupted online taking the PC giant by surprise. It was a series of posts and comments specifically about Dell’s customer service, put together by media pundit, Jeff Jarvis, on his blog “A company can no longer get away with consistently offering shoddy products or service or ignoring customers’ concerns and needs,” wrote Jarvis on his blog.

Customers could now talk back and they could do so at a volume and scale big enough to impact a company’s reputation and business. And that is what happened. Pages and pages of complaints poured in from frustrated Dell customers.

Over the following years, Dell set up command centres, which were essentially social media listening hubs, and which would help it stay connected with its customers everywhere. Dell went on Twitter as @DellCares to increase its outreach. It began to use Radian6, an online reputation management tool, to aggregate and make sense of what customers were saying about it real-time. It also connected the command centres with service and support teams. From being in deep reputation trouble, Dell went on to be recognised as a social pioneer, even lending its listening and engaging expertise to other companies, and across different domains. In August, Dell built a mobile listening command centre to monitor conversations around a golf PGA championship event, showing that fans could be connected with organiser companies.

But, equally, several companies have successfully jumped through the Web’s fire rings and landed with a halo on the other side. Procter & Gamble’s ‘Thank You Mom’ campaign, in which it engaged with mothers over social media, is an example. So are Starbucks, Red Bull, Ikea, KLM and many others. In India, Maruti Suzuki, Café Coffee Day, Nescafe and Samsung have made some good moves to enhance their reputations online. Brands are also reaching out to bloggers.

Vineet Rajan, co-founder of the Indiblogger community, points to online travel company Expedia, which has engaged with bloggers by asking them to share an experience they have had of meeting an interesting person while travelling. Dove, HP, Maruti are others that have done blogger outreach events.


Digital Dirt Can Stick
Although Jessie Paul, CEO of marketing consultancy Paul Writer, grumbles that “only a tiny proportion of companies in India have an active social media strategy that extends beyond using the medium for sales”, the good news is that Indian businesses are fairly sensitised to the need for ORM.

 Click on the image for an enlarged view

Despite the flak it gets online, Airtel has been an early pioneer of ORM, having entered it over two years ago. Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO and founder of social media agency Social Wavelength, says, “Over the past six months, an increasing number of our clients are being proactive about listening and (online) reputation management. I suspect many are motivated by actually seeing businesses get hurt because of their reputation getting damaged or because they have seen other companies go through the impact of negative comments.”


Maruti’s Shashank Srivastava, executive officer (product planning and international markets), admits taking ORM seriously after hearing about how Jet Airways was embarrassed when actress Priyanka Chopra tweeted about an upset tummy after having flown with the airline. Jet promptly got in touch with her and assured her of the safety of its airline food. She tweeted about the airline’s concern and this has now become ORM folklore.


Maruti has a full-fledged ORM strategy, and according to Nielsen’s NMIncite India’s Social Media Brand Equity Ranking, despite the worker unrest and violence at its Manesar plant, enjoys strong sentiment on auto forums that include blogs, boards, review sites and social media sites.

ORM adoption is also rising thanks to crash courses given by bodies such as software and services association Nasscom, the Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), and events such as AdTech.


AT first, when companies were blindsided by what was happening to them online, they rushed to social media agencies. Even big advertising agencies were unable to cope. As Lakshmanan Narayan, CEO and co-founder of Unmetric, a social media benchmarking company, says, today there is a virtual cottage industry of social media agencies to help with online reputation management, or ORM.

While some giant corporations choose to do their listening and monitoring in house, many prefer to outsource. Says Jessie Paul, CEO of marketing consultancy Paul Writer, “A good ORM programme has to be 24x7, and requires investment in tools and apps, which are rather expensive. Not all companies can afford to do this in-house.”

Social media agencies take on the whole project — selection of ORM tools, running them, and reporting to the client company the relevant learnings. Rajesh Lalwani, founder of social media agency Blogworks, says the volume of conversations has increased dramatically for organisations. To make sense of this data calls for the ability to see the big picture and trends. “While it is easy to respond on a case-to-case basis to customers with complaints, one also needs to understand what they are really saying? What are the themes that tend to dominate these conversations? Are they coming from a specific channel, geography? Who are the people in the conversations?” he says. “This then leads to action points on what to do. It is complicated.”

One of the mandates of social media agencies, says Lalwani, is to simplify the data for the decision-makers inside the organisation so that they can understand it quickly and with clarity.

“In a social media agency,” he says, “you need two kinds of people to handle the data that tools give out. The first are those who understand data and know their statistics, research and trends. The second are those who understand business communication, can figure out what the data means and what can be done with it.”

His agency visualises the data so that different users within the same company — marketing team, customer service team, or top management can view the data in a way pertinent to them.

On the client side, there are two views about outsourcing ORM. Companies in sectors where there is a huge traffic of online conversations online obviously see the merit of outsourcing. Aviation, telecom, hospitality and auto companies, for example. As the volume is large, the analytics gets complex. So an Idea Cellular or a Maruti may choose to outsource as opposed to a consumer durable company such as Sony.

On the other hand, says Mohit Hira, chief marketing officer of NIIT, which has a smaller audience to deal with, they debated outsourcing but felt they would be able to respond faster if they did it in-house. “Our audience is not on Twitter; it is only on Facebook and YouTube. So we figured we could do it easily. Moreover, if the interventions needed are slightly complex, the agency will come back to us, and we waste valuable time,” he says, describing how NIIT opted for an external ORM tool, Analytics Pro, from Socialbakers.

The best model, says Paul, is where the operations are outsourced but the thinking and strategy are with the in-house team. “I see the agencies evolving into BPO-like organisations,” she forecasts.

In April last year, for instance, Nasscom flew in Scott Stratten, president of UnMarketing (a social marketing expertise blog), to address its members on social media’s ripple effect and how it could prove perilous for businesses. Stratten, describing the power of the Web, said: “Face to face customers rarely complain. You walk into a restaurant, and if you are unhappy with the food, it is unlikely that you will tell the restaurant manager. But you will be quick to tweet, or post your opinion on Facebook.”

Max Hegerman, senior vice-president and head of digital at marketing communication company JWT India, endorses this. He says that in brand sentiment surveys offline, customers rarely voice negative opinions, but online they are very open and vocal.

The Three-step Plan

The starting point for going social, according to K. Ramakrishnan, president of marketing at Café Coffee Day (CCD), is to be open to negative feedback. “With 1,300 outlets across the country, we are bound to slip up here or there, and we are open to receiving bad news. It just adds to the transparency of the brand,” he says.

Tadato Kimura, general manager of marketing at Sony India, agrees that negative comments are helpful feedback for setting your house in order. “At times these fires help us correct the problem area and set the operations much more effectively. We give importance to online reputation management since this directly impacts our consumer sentiment,” he emphasises.

Most companies follow a three-step ORM strategy. This involves listening, responding, and engaging with online communities, and then making suitable changes to align with customer expectations.

Listening includes measuring the impact of social conversations. Viral Oza, chief marketing officer at Nokia India, points out that the company does this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and uses the results to come up with a strategy to create a positive predisposition for the brand among consumers.

CCD’s Ramakrishnan adds that they think of the ORM reports as a crystal ball. “Our customers are young, and their conversations keep us in the know about what is happening. This helps us co-create relevant new products along with them.”


  • Forget control. Sanjay Mehta of Social Wavelength says they advise companies to strike the word 'control' out of their dictionary and 'participate' instead.
  • Admit mistakes gracefully. Take the way FedEx's head of pickup and delivery operations posted a video online apologising for a delivery goof-up (a FedEx delivery man had tossed a Samsung monitor package over a gate), winning back points. Not acknowledging a problem can turn into a big issue.
  • Respond to everyone but learn to prioritise. There are some topics that are more incendiary than others. For example, a bank should prioritise comments on its solidity over those on its service.
  • Identify the influencers. Check out the Klout scores or those who have many fans and followers, and engage with them.
  • Take pre-emptive action where possible. Product recalls, a company facing financial crisis are all potential reputation killers. But, as General Motors India showed when its parent went bankrupt, you can take smart online action. GM India invested in roadblock advertising (taking over all the space on major sites for a period of time)
  • Don't leave yourself open to attacks. This January, Big Mac asked customers to share their McD stories over Twitter. People shared with glee, except it was the wrong kind of stories. Sample: "One time I walked into McDonald¡¦s and I could smell Type 2 diabetes... in the air....¡¨ Nothing should be launched in the digital eco-system without thousands testing it first.
  • Don't let the negative show up high in searches. Smart firms keep a close watch on Google search results of their brand names and ensure that nothing negative appears in the first page of results. Search optimisation and posting positive reviews helps.
  • Don't try to buy positive reviews. It is a big mistake to pay people to write glowing comments or ¡¥fake it¡¦ in any way. The backlash, should the truth come out, would be severe.

Nestle, Sony and other companies have invested significantly in their social listening set-up, creating command centres much like Dell. Global head of HR at Nestle, Jean-Marc Duvoisin, who was recently in India, said the company has set up a digital accelerator team (DAT) at its Vevey headquarters. The team has 18 young people from around the world who monitor conversations, and lead responses.

Sony, which does all its social interventions in-house, has even built its own ORM tools to monitor and measure conversations.

Whose Baby Is It?
Initially, ORM was the marketing department’s headache as anything to do with digital automatically was classified under digital media spends. But now, companies realise that it is everybody’s baby.
Typically, marketing, corporate communications and service delivery wings are fully involved. As Oza of Nokia explains, “ORM involves several elements that need to work in tandem across marketing, corporate communications and Nokia Care. We believe it is important that this is managed seamlessly involving various functions and departments.”


Mohit Hira, chief marketing officer of career- building solutions at NIIT, explains that although there is one dedicated resource in-house to track conversations, each of the regional heads is asked to listen in, and intervene if it is his geography.

Chander Baljee, chairman and MD of Royal Orchids Hotels, says that even though he has a team to look at feedback and complaints, he personally goes through comments on sites such as TripAdvisor.

And this is how it should be, says Shiv Singh, global head of digital at PepsiCo. At a recent digital media event, he said, “Leadership needs to embrace digital and spend time online as a user.”

Anand Mahindra is one such business leader who is an ORM inspiration for many. “He has done a good job of scaling his Twitter presence,” says Paul of Paul Writer. Another good example, she says, is the brand Ching’s Secret from Capital Foods “where around 30 of the executive team take turns to be online throughout the day. Serious queries are addressed by a senior executive”.

Paul says that it is now imperative for companies to articulate a comprehensive social media policy. “Every employee has to be trained on what is appropriate conduct on each of the social channels.”

Mehta of Social Wavelength says, “We recommend social media policies when we work with a client. A template is created on how to handle a problem and there is sometimes a set of training sessions for management so that they can spread the message on how to respond.” Training is important for large companies, but it is a slow process, he says.

Traditionally, reputation management used to be the job of public relations companies. In the online world, it is not so, although Brian Solis, one of the top social media experts in the world, transformed his PR business by embracing  social media: PR 2.0, as he called it. Several PR agencies in India, too, are now getting into the game, offering ORM services. Chiragh Cherian, who heads online initiatives at Perfect Relations, says many of the company’s clients are now ready to take up ORM services, after a series of online audits revealed negative comments that no one realised were out there.

Companies in service-oriented sectors such as airlines, telecom, auto and hospitality lead in monitoring and reacting to online conversations, even as FMCG companies and food brands have recently made huge strides. Several companies though are still sitting on the fence.

Reputation Vs Branding
Ask companies about how much they spend on ORM and no clear answer emerges. Sony says investments are “significant” as does Nokia. Typically, many small companies who do it in-house argue that it is “free” and there are no cash costs. Only people and time resources — which, of course, are not free at all.

For most companies ORM is part of the digital media spend, which is barely 5 per cent of the total advertising spend. In terms of time spent on this by top executives, one could say that considerable investments are going in, though Paul feels that barely 1 per cent of digital spends are going towards ORM.

The other reason that companies cannot give an accurate picture on ORM spending is that it comes under many departments’ purview, and gets mixed and coalesced with other activities. Take branding, for instance. How much of ORM is actually brand building? Says Nokia’s Oza: “Online brand and reputation management work simultaneously, and not in isolation. Customers absorb whatever a brand does — from talking about new products to schemes, to taking feedback.”


SANJAY MEHTA, Joint CEO and founder, Social Wavelength

What we advise our clients is that no one expects you to be perfect. But if you are honest out there, and accept when you make a mistake, customers are okay to hear that. As businesses become more social, it is possible that responding to customer communities will become part of everyday work.


Online reputation management also has to be driven by an interest in customer service, not just sales. Even if the company views its online presence as being for sales, the consumers will use this as a service contact point. Unless the company acknowledges this and consciously has a mechanism to handle this, its reputation is at risk.

Hegerman of JWT feels ORM is not overt but subliminal branding. He points out that ORM tools are actually helping in brand building as the exercise helps agencies understand consumer sentiments and change positioning if needed. For instance, he describes how before launching Polo and Vento in India, Volkswagen  dived deep into brand sentiments online and changed its positioning after feedback.

Another example he gives is the trailer of the movie Men In Black, which was broadcast online. The feedback showed that there was too little of Will Smith in the trailer. The trailer was changed and the film turned out to be a mega hit, he says.

Integrated Works Best

“I think ORM works best when it is integrated with the organisation’s overall supply chain and CRM (customer relationship management) programme. It has to be an extension of the company’s overall strategy, an integrated part of the marketing plan. It also has to be driven by an interest in customer service, not just sales,” says Paul of Paul Writer.

Companies do seem to know this. Mehta of Social Wavelength says: “Sometimes the strategy extends beyond reputation management to marketing and CRM. When we are handling multiple areas, we have a deeper relationship with the company and we deal with all departments, led from the top.”

JWT’s Hegerman says, “We believe that ORM should not be reactionary but more like a monthly check-up — an essential maintenance tool to measure your brand’s health.”

Despite a full-fledged ORM strategy, companies cannot afford to let down their guard, even for a second. Even a brand such as Coca-Cola, which has earned kudos for its online efforts, mostly thanks to its music property Coke Studio, has faltered. In March, Coke asked its Facebook fans Down Under to participate in a word association game with its value proposition of ‘happiness’ and create a story. Instead, fans scribbled toilet humour on its page, and the whole exercise backfired. As the newspaper Sydney Morning Herald commented: “This was another case of a big brand marketer learning the hard way that social media runs by its own rules, particularly when the public is asked to contribute.”

chitra(dot)narayanan(at)abp(dot)in, malabhargava(at)bworldmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-09-2012)