The proverbial has hit the fan. You’ve found horse in one of your products now you’re top-ranking on Google News trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons your Facebook page is being bombarded with angry customer comments and someone, somewhere is busy photoshopping a horse’s head on to your product shots.

As ‘Horsegate’ has shown us, crisis management in the digital age is a whole lot more complex, with multiple new channels to manage, and a consumer base that is more empowered and emboldened than ever. And even after the worst is over, the scandal can live on. The old adage “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper” is more tenuous than ever, as unflattering headlines and negative comments can leave a permanent digital footprint on search engines and social media, threatening to forever associate brands with past misdemeanours.

It’s no wonder a new breed of companies specialising in online reputation management (ORM) services has sprung up. Yet ironically for a sector preoccupied with other people’s reputations, ORM has a pretty poor reputation itself: often seen as a tool for powerful companies to rewrite history by covertly getting rid of online coverage they don’t like, being seen to engage in ORM after a scandal can be as damaging to a brand’s reputation as the scandal itself.

In the wake of the horsemeat fiasco, French ORM company Reputation Squad contacted a number of French websites on behalf of Findus France and, the websites claim, asked them to remove the name ‘Findus’ from the headlines of some stories. The result? Yet more coverage, this time about Findus’ attempts to “clean up” the web.

“If you are already well represented online, you will have lots of chances to be represented well in a crisis”

Jonathan Hemus, MD of Insignia Communications

Reputation Squad insists its approach was justified and ultimately paid off (see box p56), but clearly ORM has to be handled with care: So how do you strike the right balance?

First, you need to retain a sense of perspective, suggests Dave King, CEO of Digitalis Reputation. The sheer volume of online coverage and comments during a scandal can send companies into a panic, but “in many ways, online content is not that different from traditional content - a lot ultimately gets lost in the ether,” he says.

Instead of losing sleep over every negative comment, brands need to focus their efforts on those parts of the web that make the biggest difference to their reputations - and that’s search results, according to Brent Franson, vice president of Reputation.com. “Search results are probably the most important outlet to consider, given 78% of people feel it’s very important to look up information on people or businesses before interacting with them,” he says.

More specifically, it’s the first page of results that holds the key to a brand’s reputation, as 89% of people don’t bother looking beyond it, Franson adds.

To ensure that a page isn’t littered with references to a scandal every time someone googles a company’s name, defence is the best plan of attack, experts suggest. Creating relevant sub-domains and sister websites, official Twitter profiles and Facebook pages, as well as claiming Google Places listings, all add heft to a brand’s presence in search results, and make it more likely third-party content is pushed out of that all-important first page.

“The broader your online presence, the more it will show up prominently in search results,” says Jonathan Hemus, MD of Insignia Communications. “If you are already well represented, you will have lots of opportunities to be represented well in a crisis.”

The major mults have this down to a T, and it’s served them well in the horsemeat scandal: search for Tesco in Google, and the results are dominated by Tesco’s own websites - from groceries to clothing, banking and careers - and horsemeat doesn’t show up until page three. By contrast, searches for Findus and Birds Eye, which have a much smaller online presence, produce five and six horsemeat articles, respectively, on the first results page.

Bad news tends to stick

Once unfavourable search results have crept on to the first results page, they have a habit of sticking. “What determines whether a blog or an article is displayed prominently is, to a large extent, based on the number of links from external websites linking into that blog or article,” explains King.

“Negative news is more interesting and therefore rises in search engines, and subsequent good news doesn’t get the same value of links.”

“Negative news is more interesting and therefore rises in search engines, and subsequent good news doesn’t get the same value of links”

Dave King

That’s where ORM techniques can lend a helping hand. At the most basic level, ORM involves search engine optimisation - using the right keywords, tags and meta descriptions to ensure company-owned content stands the best-possible chance of ranking prominently in search results.

If that’s not enough, ORM providers can help by promoting favourable third-party content (typically by linking to it) or creating new, well-optimised content designed specifically to outrank unflattering results. “We have proprietary technology to push up and amplify commentary, and there is a technical remedy for rebalancing a company’s reputation that involves the creation of content,” says King. But he warns brands not to be too trigger-happy: “If a business spewed out content purely to dominate search results, that would be pretty challenging for its reputation.”

Indeed, although some ORM providers promise to “hide” or “suppress” online information for their clients, King and other experts agree: attempting to “wipe clean” the web after a scandal is a seriously bad idea, and deleting negative comments from social media sites or tinkering with Wikipedia entries are also big no-nos. “The cover-up is nearly always worse than the crime,” warns Franson. Adds Rob Metcalfe, MD of Richmond Towers: “Trying to deny or forget a crisis is a thing of the past. Anyone who is interested in you will be able to find out good and bad things in your history - you have to live with that.”

“You can’t communicate enough in a crisis”

Although brands would undoubtedly prefer it if consumers didn’t stumble upon references to a past crisis, the reality is some will search specifically for a retailer or brand in combination with, say, ‘horse’, so it’s important the brand’s side of the story is well represented.

“You can’t communicate enough in a crisis,” says Metcalfe. “Many companies make the mistake of having a burst of activity and then a long silence, but that doesn’t work.”

Hemus agrees, especially regarding social media: “You need to respond to comments quickly and repeat messages because otherwise they fall to the bottom of the page. It’s no good saying something just once.”

“Many companies make the mistake of having a burst of activity and then a long silence, but that doesn’t work”

Rob Metcalfre

Having a dedicated crisis section on a corporate website, which summarises the company’s position and outlines what it’s done in response to the scandal, is also a good idea, suggests Franson. “Once the crisis passes, you can move it to a less prominent part of your website,” he adds.

Alternatively, companies can set up a standalone website, as Tesco has done with its Tesco Food News site. “It’s not a bad idea to have a shell website ready to use in a crisis,” says Hemus. “Over time, you can then change that from a crisis-specific site to a more general site about food integrity.”

Of course, dedicated crisis websites don’t count for much if they don’t rank prominently in results. Search for ‘Tesco’ and ‘horse’, for example, and Tesco Food News is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Google throws up an ‘equestrian equipment buying guide’ from Tesco Direct on page one. By contrast, if you search for ‘horse’ and ‘Sainsbury’s’, the results on page one include an update from the Sainsbury’s website, informing customers no horsemeat has been found in Sainsbury’s products. “I’d probably advise clients to keep that kind of content on a corporate domain, as it might rank higher in search results more quickly,” says King.

Despite its bad reputation, ORM - used judiciously - can be a powerful tool to help companies move on from a crisis. But in managing the online aftermath of a scandal, it’s important they don’t lose sight of what brought about negative coverage in the first place. As Franson says: “If there’s truth in what’s being raised, identify the changes you’re going to make and communicate them, so customers know you really do listen.”

Case study: L’affaire Findus

Imagine instead of ‘Horsegate’, the scandal was known in the UK as ‘Tescogate’ or ‘the ABP affair’. That’s what happened to Findus in France following its discovery of horse in frozen lasagne - the scandal became known as “l’affaire Findus”.

Little surprise the company hired an ORM specialist - France’s Reputation Squad. But in doing so, it created a whole new wave of negative coverage.

In mid-February, La Tribune published a note with an article informing readers “La Tribune, like many other digital media, has been approached by Reputation Squad to change three headlines referring to Findus. We have decided not to accede.”

It then analysed Findus’ attempts to “clean up” the web, and other sites followed suit, publishing exposés on Findus’ ORM (see picture) and criticising its lack of strategy for online and social media.

But they missed the point, says Findus Southern Europe CEO Matthieu Lambeaux. Findus France did have an online strategy - keeping schtum. “Findus is not an internet brand. We’re not Apple,” he says. “You get these communications experts saying you need to be active online during a crisis, but the people making jokes on Twitter about Findus aren’t the people who buy Findus in the supermarket.”

Yes, Findus asked Reputation Squad to suggest to journalists that calling a Europe-wide fraud “the Findus affair” wasn’t fair, but he denies the company engaged in other more insidious ORM practices: @findus_france, a Twitter account that tweeted cease-and-desist notices to users who had created horse-themed pictures featuring the Findus logo, was a fake, he says.

And Reputation Squad co-founder Albéric Guigou stresses although there was negative coverage, it was worth it. “We had evaluated the potential effects of criticism compared with letting our client’s brand be defamed, and decided to act in co-ordination with the client.”

People arguing about ORM and online crisis communications is ultimately “a microcosm talking to itself”, concludes Lambeaux.

He has reason to feel vindicated. Findus this month announced it’s on course to increase sales by about 5% in France this year.