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Companies hire firms to manage their online reputation

A leading private bank was recently in the eye of the storm because of its high-handedness with some of its customers. Priyanka Mehra reports.
By Priyanka Mehra | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2008 01:55 AM IST

A leading private bank was recently in the eye of the storm because of its high-handedness with some of its customers. While it put its customer care, public relations and corporate communications team in action to address public concerns, it found itself unable to manage the problem online.

“There were numerous negative entries (on the issue) across diverse blogs, discussion forums, websites, online journals and social networking sites. Some people even launched hate websites in its name,” recalls a person who was part of the team the bank then set up to manage its “online reputation”.

Team members joined the blogs and discussion groups addressing, sometimes challenging, issues raised. It launched its own discussion groups where doubts were cleared. The bank even began advertising its services on such sites.

While common in the West — a Google search comes up with 9.71 lakh links as well as a Wikipedia entry — online reputation management (ORM) is getting more of a focus in India as more and more people access the Net.

According to a March survey by New Delhi-based online research firm JuxtConsult, around 49 million people in India access the Internet regularly.

The survey found that 43 per cent of this group regularly participates in social networks, another 27 per cent are regular bloggers. It is this group that companies are focusing on when it comes to their image.

“Social networking sites and blogs have emerged as a potent medium for common consumers, who thus far had no means to be heard or seen, to communicate their views on companies and brands,” says Mahesh Murthy, managing director, Pinstorm Technologies, a digital marketing firm.

The result? ORM is becoming a new discipline at some companies as a way to monitor and do damage control, and to build positive buzz.

“Of our 40 clients, only two were using online reputation management (ORM) services until six months ago. Today, we provide this service to 15 of them and many more have evinced interest,” says Sidharth Rao, chief executive and co-founder, Webchutney Studio Pvt. Ltd, an online advertising agency.

According to industry experts, ORM is now becoming an integral part of the media plan of most aggressive advertisers, and companies are spending anywhere between Rs 25 lakh and Rs 1.5 crore to invest in online image building.

Some names, say industry experts, include Bharti Airtel Ltd, Virgin Mobile India, ICICI Bank Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd, Infosys Technologies Ltd, General Motors India Pvt Ltd, Microsoft Corp and United Spirits Ltd.

A dedicated team typically surfs the Internet—including through Web alerts — and gathers instances where the company or its brands find a mention. It participates in blogs, forums, wikis, search engine results and social media websites on behalf of the company, not always identifying itself.

Such efforts could also involving creating own forums and blogs to disseminate positive

news and also to counter sites thatmay be causing damage to the company’s image.

“Many a time, we build our own blogs and websites and drive internal traffic to them in a bid to push the negative sites down from the top links on popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

Once our website is on the top in such searches, it inevitably starts getting outside traffic as well,” says a member of one such team on the condition of anonymity.

Such aggressive reputation management could pose ethical issues if the bloggers, forum participants or websites don’t identify themselves as representing the firm that they are discussing online. Agencies providing such services insist though that they don’t mislead consumers.

“We only deal with uninformed discussion or misleading criticism,” claims Sandeep Singh, business director at online interactive agency Quasar Media. “We rectify perceptions when they are incorrect. We don’t mislead people by providing wrong information.” Adds Mohit Gupta, chief marketing officer, MakeMyTrip.com, a travel site that does online image building: “ORM is just an extension of what we call public relations. Just that the medium has changed to the Internet.”

Along with being present on blogs and forums, MakeMyTrip.com has also established a travel community on social networking site Orkut.com, with some 600 registered members.

In addition to image management, such efforts “can also help in pushing sales”, says Rajesh Lalwani, founder, Blogworks, a communications and marketing solutions company. “Earlier, there weren’t too many sources to gather information on a brand.

Today, consumers first go to the Net to gain some intelligence on the product and brand they want to buy before making a final decision,” he added. Companies feel such enterprises can also help in pushing up sales, in addition to image management.

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