Tim Maltin featured in The Guardian ‘Notes on a scandal: using technology to improve a company’s reputation’

Technology can help companies like VW manage and rebuild their reputation but it’s not a magic bullet and must be used ethically

It has been a good few weeks for anyone who likes to indulge in a bit of corporate schadenfreude: Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and the cyber-attack on TalkTalk have kept consumer and business news sites busy analysing what happened and how the companies involved should respond. Put either company’s name into a search engine and the results include plenty of links referring to these events.

And they are far from alone. Any business can find its name connected to bad news online, whether it is a review from a disgruntled customer or a report about a legal case.

So can companies use technology to improve their reputation by changing what people read about them online and in social media?

The answer is a qualified yes. Re-writing Wikipedia entries to hide unpleasant truths, posting fake reviews on social media and misusing keywords in an attempt to manipulate search rankings are all technologically possible but they are also ethically unacceptable and a terrible idea practically, says Tim Maltin, the chief executive of Maltin PR.

Using media to tell a positive story

Maltin argues that technology is best used to help understand a company’s reputation online. It should not be used for unethical “black hat” purposes such as posting fake reviews or creating stories about “avatars” with the same name as the client in order to sow confusion and push real stories lower in the rankings.

Instead he uses technology to monitor, for example, what appears on the first page of internet search rankings (it’s only really the first page that matters, as more than two-thirds of users don’t look any further than that). “Then we work in a more traditional way to get stories out there – genuine, new, positive stories – and those will fill the top slots,” he says.

A big company that wants to push big negative news stories down the rankings must have substantial new stories to tell, and will need to find ways to get them on reputable sites such as the BBC and the Guardian, says Lewis Sellers, a director of Pinpoint Designs, a digital agency. Smaller companies with less serious problems can probably take control of the first page of results simply by improving the ranking of sites that they control themselves. “We might build up their LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter pages, for example,” says Sellers.

Whatever the company’s size, its ability to push negative results off the front page of search engines will take time, and relies on it having grappled with the underlying issue that caused its reputation to take a hit in the first place. “It has to be tackled head-on,” says Kun Dang, head of search at Babel PR. “You can’t just say ‘I am going to whitewash all the bad news out of my results’.”

Don’t try to fake it

Consumers expect ethical companies to behave in a transparent way, agrees Dr Eve Poole, associate lecturer at Hult International Business School. “That’s a full and frank confession, not ‘no comment’,” she says. “It’s about using momentum (from the negative story) to start a debate … and to show what the brand really stands for. It’s action, not words.” That can include sacking the senior managers responsible for the decisions that led to the situation arising, she adds.

This increasing expectation of transparency is one reason why black hat activities are ineffective as well as unethical, Maltin adds. “It always comes back to bite you … people inevitably work out when things are not genuine, which makes things even worse.” The company’s reputation will be further damaged when news of its underhand efforts comes out, while it may also find itself blacklisted from Google if it has attempted to use techniques such as “keyword stuffing” (loading a website with irrelevant or unnecessary keywords to manipulate its search rankings).

Why, then, do companies even try? Maltin, who has had to pick up the PR pieces in the aftermath of such activities conducted by other people, says that sometimes they can get overexcited by the technology and fail to look at either the bigger picture or the ethical implications.

“In theory, it would be possible to simply cover up a big corporate scandal in the online environment if you put enough work in,” says Richard Stone of Stone Junction, a technology PR agency. “In practice it would be impossible; the quantity of material appearing online and in the news every minute of every day would be far too great to manage.”

The only real way to deal with it is to control its source by providing as much information as possible to the media about the steps the company is taking to mitigate the effects of the current problem and to ensure it does not happen again, Stone says. “You should provide all the facts [about what happened] – otherwise those facts will be sourced elsewhere and, as a result, will probably be exaggerated.” TalkTalk seems to be doing this very effectively, adds Dang, by updating information on its site, posting video FAQs and so forth.

Companies and individuals can also ask Google to take down stories under the EU’s “right to be forgotten” rules, but this is unlikely to be much help for companies that were caught out by their own misbehaviour, as they would need to show that the stories were no longer relevant or in the public interest, says Maltin. Libel laws are likely to be equally unhelpful.

If the problem is with a Wikipedia page it is a better idea for a company’s representative to approach the Wikipedia community than to change it themselves, says Andrew Williams, a senior director at FTI Consulting. “Be transparent about it. Explain that you are an employee, that [for instance] the financial figures quoted are out of date, and share your sources for the correct information.”

This article was originally published in The Guardian and can be found here.