Reputation Management (Interview)

Intertel runs a thriving reputation management business, Intertrust, that is well regarded in the industry and attracts high profile individuals and businesses in need of professional reputation management, disaster mitigation and brand rehabilitation assistance. On 14 November 2014 our managing director, Brett Powell, was interviewed for an article in the RiskSA Magazine regarding reputation management, with a specific focus on the hospitality industry. Below is a transcript of that interview – the questions asked and the answers provided.

What is reputation management and how valuable is a reputation or ‘brand’?

“Your reputation is the most valuable thing you possess”. Forbes journalist Karsten Strauss made this statement in an article published in May 2014 and if this sentiment isn’t believed by a business then they’re already at major risk of reputational harm. While Strauss’ article focuses on personal reputation, her view of the importance of a stellar reputation as well as her advice for developing and maintaining a great reputation holds true for businesses and brands too.

There is no doubt that maintaining a good reputation is important for businesses in general, but it is especially vital to businesses in the hospitality industry where potential guests are more likely to consult rating and review sites prior to visiting the business and tend to be more inclined to comment publicly about their experiences (both good and bad). In addition, there is a growing ecosystem of online rating and review platforms geared specifically toward the hospitality industry which, if mismanaged or ignored, can be potentially disastrous. On the flipside, if these platforms are handled correctly, they can be used as a force multiplier in any reputation management program.

Back in the day (that is, before Google) reputation management was a function of public relations spin doctors and, to a degree, the marketing and customer service departments. The focus was on handling complaints, resolving disputes, managing public perceptions and limiting reputational damage or media fallout. Nowadays, issues can accelerate from dissatisfaction to crisis at the speed of light – and with the click of a button – while the window of opportunity for interdicting an escalating problem is diminishing rapidly. After-the-fact reputation management is not really reputation management at all. It is damage control, and it is severely limited in the digital age. Once content has been published on the internet it becomes incredibly difficult to remove. In fact, in many cases it cannot be removed at all – it can simply be diluted or obscured.

In the present era, reputation management can no longer be effective as a single business function (whether it is performed by one person in the business or an entire business unit). Ideally it should be adopted as a way of thinking and acting that needs to be incorporated into every aspect of a business and performed by all employees at all times, but it goes further than that too. In the hospitality industry in particular, reputation management should seek to recruit guests as brand evangelists, encourage the digital word of mouth and tap into the collective opinion and experience of patrons – whether through social media or personal interaction – in order to engage with each and every guest on their terms, and to truly listen to their feedback. Leveraging current and emerging technologies to create a strong online presence with recognizable branding will not only encourage public participation and engagement, but will facilitate positive commentary, improve service delivery and inform product development. In a way, the hospitality industry has a distinct advantage in that the entire business model should already be geared toward providing guests with unique, positive, memorable experiences that foster return business and encourage referral business.

The number of smartphone users with access to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Trip Adviser has increased dramatically in the past year alone, how do you think this has changed the expectations and demands of guests/customers? And what challenges does this change present to the risk manager?

Most companies approach reputation management as an after-the-fact, damage limitation activity, springing into action whenever a customer posts a scathing review or a blogger publishes a non-flattering article online. By then it’s almost too late. The race to a positive reputation begins at the first point of contact – not after there is a problem – after all, waiting this late in the race to get off the starting blocks means that your competitors are probably already well ahead. If you’ve missed the starter’s gun, don’t despair, just get going – you’ll need to catch up, but given that this is a race with no finish line, it is also a race you cannot lose unless you don’t run or you give up trying. You certainly don’t want the next sound you hear to be a sonic boom as your competitors lap you, and drive your business into irrelevance.

Guest expectations are fundamental to reputation management and should therefore be managed from the outset – before the first contact if possible. How? Find out where the guest heard about your establishment. Keep a growing record of such referrals and monitor them continuously to ensure that they reflect accurately upon your establishment. Establish relationships with online publishers and bloggers who can feature your upcoming events, introduce new offerings and provide interesting information about your business and business environment. Get social. Social media has revolutionized how an entire generation expects to communicate and interact. Don’t simply create a Facebook page and do the same old same old. Discounts, promotions and special offers only go so far. Be different, be interesting and stay relevant. You need to generate content that can be widely shared, that has appeal, that entertains or enlightens, and that reinforces the image you have of your business and brand.

If ratings, reviews, social shares, and other online commentary is genuine and honest then guest expectations will be more realistic (and from a business’ perspective, more attainable – and hopefully surpassable). Managing guest demands falls a little outside the scope of traditional reputation management but should not be excluded outright, especially when guest demands are driven by unrealistic expectations that themselves are based on misinformation, false advertising and dishonest reviews. To illustrate the point, an hotel with a poor view, communal ablutions and appalling service should not expect to meet or exceed customer expectations if their reputation management policy is geared toward flooding rating and review sites with (bogus) glowing testimonials of the awesome customer service, the amazing sea views and the lavish en-suite facilities.

When reasonable customer expectations have not been met, then the business will be seen as being at fault whether or not they truly are. Unreasonable customer expectations on the other hand may be more problematic and usually require a more personable approach. But in essence it goes to the same thing: managing these issues after the fact is exponentially more difficult than preventing these issues from occurring in the first place. We’re not in the hospitality industry, we’re in the forensic investigation and technical intelligence industry, but even so, our world view is not much different. Ours too is a service industry that is highly competitive and customer-driven. Online reviews and ratings are often the deciding factor in customers choosing to make use of our services or not, and having a poor reputation in this industry, as in the hospitality industry, can be catastrophic.

By far the easiest way to avoid negative reviews is by not promising something that cannot be delivered, and by making every effort to deliver what has been promised, on time and within budget. By doing this we’ve jumped the first major hurdle in managing reputation: expectations. We’re not infallible and we’re subject to the same human nature that defines us all. It is how we choose (as a business) to handle things – the issue, the customer, the reviews – when they go wrong that is fundamental to successfully managing the business reputation, and I believe it is an essential part of developing credibility and trust.

Anyone in the risk management field will know that the challenges they face are constantly increasing – not only in scope, but in magnitude and complexity. In the context of reputation management, the risk to businesses is certainly increased when one considers the ease with which a competitor or vindictive personality could publish and disseminate bogus, vindictive or defamatory information. Added to that is the increased difficulty one faces when confronting anonymous comments. It used to be that tracing the source of defamation was a matter of backtracking who told whom, or following grapevine until one reached the genesis, but in the age of proxy servers, anonymity services, internet cafés and prepaid cell phones (all of which are publicly available and affordable) the process of identifying the person behind damaging statements can be costly and frustratingly slow.

What are the benefits of an online content strategy? What are the risks of not having one in place?

Online content strategies are relevant to reputation management although they generally fall within the ambit of marketing and SEO. For an insight into Content Marketing, a great starting point is Claire Hill’s recent article in The Guardian entitled, “10 steps to an effective content strategy”. Being the Managing Director of the Content Marketing Association, Claire’s insight is right on the money. There should be no doubt that an online content strategy is not only beneficial to a business, but is a business imperative if your enterprise relies in any way on online traffic for marketing, sales, bookings, referrals, etc. Having an online content strategy is meaningless without the ability to actually create unique, interesting and relevant content that can appeal to your target market and beyond. The benefits of online content strategy are virtually endless. Google your name or your business name and see what information is out there. How much of that information did you author and is the information really what you want potential guests and the public in general to encounter when they search for you? If the answer is yes, then you’re on track. If not, you need an online content strategy stat. Generating unique, quality online content on a regular basis not only enables a business to keep search results fresh (and positive) but is the most effective way of diluting the effects of negative publicity – much like a drop of cyanide in the ocean.

How damaging can a negative comment or review be to a hotel/lodge?

Bogus reviews can cause considerable damage if not handled correctly (especially if there is an orchestrated “smear” campaign aimed at flooding popular social networking spaces and websites with misinformation and lies) . In this situation a business would be encouraged to consult external experts in cybercrime investigation, online reputation management, SEO and content marketing. Despite the devastating short term effect that such a campaign could have on a business’ perceived trustworthiness and credibility, it is seldom the case that these types of campaigns succeed in causing any medium to long term damage. There are mechanisms available, both legally and in terms of most credible publishers’ TOC’s that enable the victim of a demonstrated smear campaign to have the offending content removed or to be given the opportunity to counter that content.

Genuine negative reviews (or comments) need not be damaging at all – granted, they’re never nice to have, but if they’re genuine, if they’re honest and if they’re few and far between, then they’re arguably a great opportunity not only showcase how wonderful your business is at resolving customer complaints, but vital for improvements to be made that prevent a recurrence. Most importantly, it is an opportunity to convert a complaint to a compliment, and turn a dissatisfied customer into a returning customer – the holy grail of complaint management.

By attending to negative reviews promptly, openly, honestly, with understanding and without blame, the complainant can be engaged constructively to address the underlying issues and more often than not will amend their complaint to reflect complimentary views of the business’ handling of their situation. Obviously there are those types of individuals that are never happy, that no matter what effort is made to rectify a problem, it is never enough. There are also those that complain for the sake of complaining – where in fact no real issue exists. Don’t obsess about these types of complaints, they’re not confined to your business alone – they’re universal – and in the grand scheme of things they carry little weight. People that know individuals like this will not place much weight on their complaint – especially when contrasted to your positive reviews. People that read review sites before making purchasing or other decisions are just as aware of the fact that some complaints are simply unavoidable, even unfounded. Just remember that no matter how venomous a complaint is, that your reply should always be polite, professional and genuinely concerned about resolving the issue. Never bully, threaten or retaliate against a negative review – no matter how bad it may be.

If a review is fraudulent or materially incorrect, defamatory or otherwise inappropriate then steps can be taken to remove it from most web spaces. Having a well handled complaint or two gives the positive reviews more credibility and is an opportunity to expose a side of your business that is relevant to all potential customers – that is, how you react when things go wrong or a customer is unhappy.

Howard McAllister, CEO of the Trust Group wrote in a blog article on our own website “You show me a company with nothing but glowing reviews and I’ll show you a company that had a hand in writing their own reviews”.

People expect businesses to have problems and statistics show that website visitors are more skeptical about flawless ratings that one might think.” The key to keeping the dirty laundry out of the public view is to handle issues promptly by providing customers with points of contact that are available, convenient and receptive. Don’t let a guest checkout without having elicited their views about your establishment and your service. Invite them (incentivize them if need be) to express to you how they really felt about your business. Give them the opportunity to speak their mind and you will be given the opportunity to make things right before they go. If staff are motivated and care to learn how to identify a problem or a brewing issue before it bubbles to the surface then you’re already ahead in race.

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