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What Does Reputation Management Have to Do with PR? They Go Hand-in-Hand

You may not remember anything remarkable about the morning of April 10, 2017, unless you are Oscar Munoz, the former senior vice president of corporate communications at United Airlines. The day before, a passenger on United flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was forcibly removed from his seat to accommodate a United flight crew member. The removal was brutal and overwrought. It was also captured on video, shared broadly on social channels and viewed by almost 10 million people within 24 hours.

But the real damage to United’s reputation took place in the following days when Munoz and the United team completely bungled their media response to the incident. He didn’t disclose the facts and laid the blame on a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger — who turned out to be a doctor traveling home to tend to patients, and a grandfather to boot. The company’s stock took an immediate nose-dive to the tune of $1.4 billion overnight. The event ultimately inspired a congressional inquiry into airline practices and resulted in operational changes across all major airlines in the U.S.

The United incident was a clear-cut example of how reputation and PR are inextricably linked in shaping public opinion — for better or worse.


The Power of Public Opinion

The speed and scale of the social outcry around the United incident helped bury the notion that a company can manage their brand through classic “push” channels. It cemented the role of the public in defining the brand narrative, and it surfaced the need for ongoing reputation management in order to build brand equity.

Unfortunately, United had almost no positive brand equity with the general public that could help it recover by framing the incident as an uncharacteristic gaff. In fact, United’s reputation had already taken a hammering prior to the incident, and no amount of good PR in that particular moment could have made up for the mistake.

Had Munoz taken responsibility for the passenger’s mistreatment rather than shifting the blame onto the unsuspecting passenger, the public might have been more forgiving. People might have appreciated the honesty and humility, and public sentiment might have improved. But here’s the reality: Reputations are earned over time, not manufactured through a crisp rebranding and PR exercise.

The United example is an easy go-to case study, but there’s no shortage of similar examples to be found in the technology sector. Across every business, from tech startups to government agencies, PR as a practice must take reputation management into consideration. The two disciplines are complementary aspects of the same organizational goal.


Join the Conversation to Persuade It

PR as we know it has been around for well over a century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, PR is “the business of giving the public information about a particular organization or person in order to create a good impression.” This description sounds a bit antiquated now, harking back to a time when it was actually possible to tell the public what you wanted them to hear and to hold back the rest. The brand controlled the message, and the public was passive.

Today, people have endless information sources at their fingertips — Google, social media, reviews and more — and they’re actively shaping public opinion about brands through user generated content (UCG) such as social commentary and online reviews. They don’t rely on brands to tell them what to think or how to perceive a product or service; they find out for themselves by doing their own research, reading information on trusted sites and checking in with peers.

In this universe, traditional PR tactics won’t suffice. Just as younger generations are no longer persuaded by celebrity endorsements and advertising, a well-placed thought leadership article or persuasive press release with analyst quotes won’t be convincing if your brand’s reputation doesn’t hold up to the promise of the PR message. To sway public opinion, you have to first build credibility and trust, and be part of the broader conversation.


A Good Reputation Bolsters Your PR Strategy

So how can brands influence the narrative in a universe in which the public plays a dominant role? In the words of John Adams, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”

Reputation management tactics and technologies can help increase your reach and visibility, build your credibility and add bounce to your brand. But here are a few things to consider:

  • Reputation building takes effort — and sometimes operational change

  • Reputation building takes time and continuous monitoring to keep it healthy

  • Reputation management and PR are inextricably linked

Smart companies typically focus on online reviews as the first line of engagement, given that they have tremendous influence over how your brand is defined and seen by the public. And reviews aren’t only relevant for consumer brands. G2 Crowd research revealed that 92% of buyers are more likely to purchase a product or service after reading a trusted review, and Spiegel Research Center found that online reviews can increase a company’s conversion rates by as much as 270%.

Can you influence your star rating on popular review sites to help boost brand equity? Absolutely! In general, brands have more happy consumers than unhappy ones, but unhappy people are more likely to write reviews. Asking every customer — happy and unhappy — to leave a review will rebalance the mix and drive up your star rating. Here’s a great resource on the basics of ratings and reviews.

Importantly, reviews provide insight to what people think about your brand, helping you hone your PR efforts and shape your conversations with the media in a way that may influence public opinion. Implicit in all this is a commitment to transparency, honesty and respect.


Keep the Wheels Turning

While PR gives you license to speak with confidence about the things that make your company great and selectively touch on those areas you’re working on, reputation management helps you see yourself as the public sees you — flaws and all — and can guide internal initiatives to optimize the customer experience. By doing so, you’ll generate more positive reviews and help raise awareness for your brand. This, in turn, can help you garner more positive media coverage, and the cycle continues.

And, in case of a challenging PR situation such as the incident at United, having a handle on both efforts will make crisis management easier and more impactful.

To learn more about Waters Agency’s integrated and comprehensive approach to PR, contact us today.

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