Lynn Russo Whylly
From cheating on emissions tests to raising the price of life-saving medicines to sexual harassment of employees to signing customers up for fake accounts and then lying about it, it seems today like corporate reputations have gone to hell in a handbasket. Clearly, CEOs and their companies need to have a proactive plan for managing their corporate reputation. We sat down with Alexi Venneri, founder and CEO of Digital Air Strike, a social media and reputation management solutions company, to discuss the CEO’s role in managing corporate reputation and how best to move forward. Q: Are companies doing a worse job of managing their corporate reputations today, or does it just look that way because media makes everything so transparent? A: I don’t think they’re any worse than they’ve ever been. It’s just that between mainstream and social media, there are more sources and there’s more access it. I think the ability for consumers and the general public to help spread stories through social media in short order has also contributed. Q: Who should be managing the corporate reputation? A: It’s the CEO who needs to manage it. We find the majority of our clients are the direct business owner or manager. In the days before social media, the traditional spokesperson was the CEO or president. It’s the same today. However, because it’s more prevalent, it often takes a team. We frequently collaborate with the marketing person because it’s so vast. One consumer might bring up a complaint and other consumers will pile on, regardless of whether they have even had any experience directly with that company. Q: Where are companies and business leaders lacking most when it comes to trying to manage their reputation? A: I think it’s in terms of having a pure strategy and plan that’s really integrated. They need to see this is as one holistic plan managed by a professional [either internally or externally]. Social media can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If they’re afraid to survey customers and put in a 360-degree feedback loop, that’s a challenge. But if you’re open to it and invite feedback from all sources, and don’t get caught up in the naysayers and people who are negative, you can have a better process to embrace feedback. And it’s cool that you can have a direct line to social feedback. In the past, if someone had a concern, they would have to call and go through layers, starting with the receptionist. It’s great to have that direct line of communication today, and the vast majority of feedback today is usually helpful. Q: What are the key proactive strategies companies should be using to manage and improve their reputation? A: What we feel has been successful is making it easy for consumers to have that direct line of communication. We recommend email survey functionality, for example, where businesses can request feedback and make it transparent so that if someone wants to ask you a question that you’re responsive and open to that. Don’t just wait for them to come to you. Asking for feedback is super helpful. Make sure your employees have an avenue for giving you feedback too. We’ve found that to be really valuable. If they want to be anonymous, that’s fine. Thank them for feedback and address their concerns. Having that two-way communication is important. We work with 1,100 dealership locations for one large automotive manufacturer. The manufacturer offers a survey that they will customize from the general manager of that location. It can go to anyone who has purchased or serviced a vehicle. And regardless of whether that feedback is positive or negative, those customers have the option to take that feedback and publish their comments verbatim on the dealership’s website. They can also share their comments more broadly such as on Cars.com, Google or any review site. And it’s completely unbiased. That level of transparency can be really helpful. The problem with not being completely transparent and encouraging feedback across the board is that only the really angry people tend to seek out online avenues to vent and that is not a balanced perspective on the business. But it’s not just the public process that’s important, it’s the feedback you get directly from surveys. It’s important to make it easy for consumers to provide feedback and make sure they know you’ve heard them, and respond to them. Even if there is a negative situation, the faster the CEO, manager or someone senior responds to them and gives them a line of communication directly, it’s amazing how easily they can often fix the problem. When that happens, frequently that person will go in and change their review in a positive way, and the company might get more business by demonstrating that they address problems rather than only having reviews stating ‘everything is always rosy’. It shows what you’re made of when you address things directly and are willing to resolve a situation. Q: And how should they be measuring their efforts? A: Look at anywhere anyone is going to find information about you and use public reviews as a baseline. But it’s important to understand the difference between social networks and review sites. On Yelp, for example, they filter out reviews if someone is not an active Yelper. So, it’s harder to get a higher score on Yelp. Instead, companies should look at creating their own scoring system with things like Net Promoter Score, public sentiment and surveys. Use these to set benchmarks and goals and then decide where you want to take that. But it’s important to do internal tracking as well as that public score consumers are going to see. There also might be some regional nuances that make sense for a business. Q: I recently came across a company that pushes its employees to write Glassdoor reviews. What do you think of that strategy? A: You should never push employees to write reviews. It’s best to have a survey process internally. The most important point of feedback is to have that survey and to act on it to make your company better, totally separate from online reviews. However, as long as the playing field is level, if you want to make leaving public reviews an option as a part of your survey process that you make available to all employees then that’s OK and actually encouraged by review sites like Glassdoor. They too want a balanced opinion of employers to be showcased and it tends to be human nature that without a reminder, just like with consumers, the happy people will often forget to share their sentiment online unless you make the option available in a user-friendly format.