Even more startling is the rate at which some of these negative links are clicked on. There are powerful tools available today which precisely meter this phenomenon, and indicate that many brand search terms result in greater traffic to third-party adversarial sites than positive or neutral content. If these incidents are not full-blown reputation crises, then they are serious smoldering issues to say the least! Search engines are the ultimate determinants of information visibility; they also have an incredible, albeit misunderstood, impact on reputation.
While several search-marketing agencies offer services to help brands manage their reputations, I've often wondered why the mainstream PR agency business and hasn't aggressively jumped in to boldly claim the space; the PR industry is often regarded as the authority in reputation issues and crisis management.
So what is the state of search and reputation management in the PR agency business today? A close examination indicates a growing recognition of its importance across the industry, but there is tremendous variation in sophistication, capabilities, and investment. To get a sense of where things are headed, I talked to some of the savvier PR agency execs about their outlook:
"Search is inextricably tied to your reputation," said David Dunne, general manager and director of worldwide operations for interactive at Edelman, the largest independent public relations firm. "Your audiences seek answers in search engines, where your messages are competing with those of NGOs, class action firms, and special interest groups." Dunne said that an entire Web-presence strategy is key, not tactics in isolation. "You need to listen, identify trends, and watch communications around a brand to gain insight and the opportunity to respond on multiple levels."
Dunne, whose division also regularly competes with the largest standalone search-marketing firms, said that search and PR have been united in Edelman's approach for a decade. "Before search was commercially viable or on the radar of brand managers, we were looking at how people were using search to seek information, and how it made an impact on their communications, behaviors, and purchasing decisions."
Matt Wahn, a director for the New York office of Netcoms, the interactive division for Hill & Knowlton, said, "There's been a great increase in the discussion between the interactive and crisis groups to develop strategies to protect reputations online."
PR agencies that haven't already dedicated resources to the search space need to align with specialists that do, according to Wahn. While incorporating search is important, he underscored that companies still need the strategic expertise of the traditional crisis team, whose fundamentals and experience span areas like brand reputation, legal, regulatory, investor and media relations, and others. PR also represents a huge publication machine, which becomes an incredibly valuable asset in delivering and managing content to support search optimization.
Idil Cakim, director of knowledge development at Burson-Marsteller, echoed the notion of search fitting into the agency's overall online PR offerings. Burson-Marsteller employs a digital checklist that includes not only search, but the role of search in relation to the entire digital landscape such as blogs, message boards, the corporate Web presence, and the online "efluential" stakeholders. The diagnosis leads to prescription and action, and search strategies are often part of the mix.
Steve Rubel, the granddaddy of PR bloggers, whose official title is vice president of client services at CooperKatz, a midsize PR firm, emphasized that "Google is becoming more influential." While CooperKatz doesn't offer formal search-marketing services, Rubel's mantra is corporate blogging, and he notes that blog strategies give companies great bang for the buck in terms of positive search optimization.
There are a few hybrid firms that have launched recently with a more specialized approach. Perhaps the best example is Converseon, which even coined the acronym SERMA (search engine reputation management). It bills itself as "a new breed of communications agency that capitalizes on the changing ways consumers and businesses gather, synthesize, share, and act on information."
Rob Key, Converseon's president and CEO, said that "if PR people define themselves as the keeper and manager of reputation management, then it is incumbent for them to get into search." However, key noted that ad agencies, with arguably bigger budgets, have been largely unsuccessful incorporating search organically and have had to go the partner or acquisition route. The same will hold true for most PR firms.
Key also pointed out that search reputation has long fallen by the wayside because it doesn't fit neatly into any single organizational function. For example, the PR people often considered it to belong to the Web marketing group, when in reality that group is often preoccupied with site traffic, customer acquisition, and sales. Brand managers and CMOs - who often oversee both of those functions - are beginning to see the bigger picture and lead coordinated efforts.
While some PR agencies take search and reputation seriously, they are not always the rule. I conclude with a pithy remark from Greg Jarboe, president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search-engine promotion company that frequently consults PR agencies. My viewpoint is not as extreme as Jarboe's, but I believe he's on to something:
The majority of mainstream PR agencies have been staring a crisis in the face for the last five years, and have been frozen like a deer in the headlights... If PR people don't figure it out, their whole category is about to become obsolete and displaced by others that incorporate PR techniques but apply them in a different way. People who understand search are learning PR faster than people who know PR are learning about search. PR people must realize that their job is changing.
How is search and reputation management intersecting in your world? Is there an optimal model? I'd love to hear your perspective.