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Reputation Management and Negative Customer/Employee Feedback

January 13, 2022

Reputation management is arguably an underappreciated aspect of digital marketing. There’s a tendency to think of that service as being reserved only for people who have gotten into trouble or been at the center of a public relations crisis, but this is an overly reductionist description. In reality, “reputation management” can refer to any effort at controlling the narrative that takes shape around your name or your company when someone starts sifting through web search results.

It can even be difficult to see where traditional digital marketing strategies end and reputation management begins. Promoting your own site is obviously digital marketing, as is boosting the search engine optimization of third-party reviews that are favorable to your site. But when this is done on a large scale and in a particularly focused way, the process is easily recognizable as reputation management. When you bring favorable content to the top of a search results page, you are, by definition, suppressing its negative competitors.

When it’s put in those terms, some people might be inclined to view this kind of digital marketing as manipulative. Those people may eventually have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that all digital marketing, not just reputation management, is manipulative in some sense. For some reason, though, people are more bothered by such manipulation when it is done for the sake of personal rather than corporate aims.

For some reason, people tend to have no problem with the idea of bolstering positive feedback about one’s company, but feel differently about suppressing negative feedback, even though these are functionally the same task. As irrational as that difference in perception may be, it potentially important from a public relations standpoint, as companies need to take into account not just the message they are promoting through their digital marketing strategies, but also potentially reactions to the way in which they are promoting it.

Limiting the Impact of Negative Reviews

There is no shortage of examples on ecommerce sites of customers catching onto what seem like shady marketing practices, and causing them to backfire on the retailer. Sometimes the customers’ concerns seem legitimate, as when companies offer rebates or other incentives in order to generate dishonest five-star reviews.

But sometimes the customers are quibbling more than they may realize. If a company is merely promoting linking to positive reviews from their site and making them more visible on the web as a whole, then it should be much more difficult for them to convince the general public that anything is awry.

Yet it is understandable that some customers may view a company’s legitimate reputation management as a tactic of drowning out their voices when they have negative feedback to give. For the sake of those customers, it is often good practice for ecommerce retailers to selectively engage with negative reviews. Thought this may increase those reviews’ visibility, it also gives the impression of a commitment to customer service, as well as demonstrating that the company is not afraid of confronting complaints head-on, even if it also tries to help the positive feedback rise to the top.

The above observations about ecommerce reviews are equally applicable, and probably even more important, when dealing with feedback that comes not from customers but from current or former employees.

Learning from Former Employees

There is a growing trend of workers using social media to publicly vent – or occasionally brag – about experiences with their employers. Fast Company recently published an article on the topic, though it failed to delve into the ways in which this trend may present a challenge to reputation management or provide companies with a tool for improving their record of workplace satisfaction over time.

Though the article acknowledged that this phenomenon may appear on other platforms, the examples that it gave were short-form videos on TikTok, featuring people who recently quit their jobs and then provided their online audiences with succinct explanations of what brought them to the breaking point. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how such attention-grabbing stories could go viral and influence entire online communities’ perception of a brand.

Of course, when it comes to the breakdown of an employer/employee relationship, or most any relationship, the truth is often more complicated than the story told by one party, especially in the space of just a few seconds. Inevitably, some of the videos, tweets, and other content that comprise this trend will demand correction from the other party. In other words, they demand reputation management.

The problem with correcting employee narratives, however, is that it risks leading the employer into a public relations minefield where a presumption of guilt is usually directed toward the more powerful side of the relationship. It’s best for companies not to make themselves look as if they are trying to throw their weight around and drown out the voices of disaffected workers. To do so would surely be worse than suppressing the voices of dissatisfied customers.

On the other hand, simply ignoring negative employee feedback is hardly better. It is only an abdication of highly justifiable reputation management practices. As with negative employee reviews, companies should approach viral “I quit” videos delicately and with a sense of openness to criticism. As much as responding to negative feedback is an instance of reputation management, it is also an opportunity for the company to learn and grow, and to adjust its public relations messaging in ways that reflect a commitment to improving life for workers.

Conclusion

A glib description of reputation management might say that the person using it is running away from negative feedback. In fact, this form of digital marketing does not have to be that cynical. Quite to the contrary, it is possible to view reputation management as an opportunity to engage with negative feedback, to learn from it, and to convince the public that you or your company is constantly working toward improvement. And if in the course of doing that, you also help surface your most positive feedback for all to see, then so much the better.

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