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Coming to grips with the online reputation

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Traditional communication strategies will enable the organization to build its reputation, but the Internet throws a new dimension into consideration – online reputation. The Internet provides instant information about almost any organization, product, or service, and about many individuals.

Social media now provide a platform to enable people to pass judgment about these topics without their views being filtered. They can instantly share their opinions with literally anyone of the hundreds of millions of users around the world. In particular, they control the online reputation of the organization through their comments and observations. It is a highly volatile situation.

What’s more, Internet companies like Google, eBay and Epinions have already set up the analytics for people to find out the reputation rankings of organizations. Alexa also provides the equivalent of reputation statistics for most sites on the Web, showing how frequently they are visited and how popular they are. The reputation metrics are typically collected from other users who have had dealings with the product, service or organization being rated. All users can indicate the extent to which they were satisfied or dissatisfied. The reputation emerges from the average rating from all users who have interacted with the organization.

Google is not just a search engine; it is a reputation influencer. Google sorts information about every site on the Web so that the highest-quality hits reach the top of the list on search result pages. Google derives its estimates of a website’s quality from the number of other sites that link to it, as well as algorithms that gives greater weight to links from more important and relevant sites. By publishing its search results pages, Google in effect runs a real-time measure of the reputation of any person or organization, as well as brand perceptions.

Ebay keeps reputation ratings on all the people who offer items for sale on its website. After buying an item, the buyer can return to the site and rate the seller on promptness of shipping and whether the item sold matched its description. The results are visible for anyone who wants to look. Ebay ( was the 20th most visited website in the world as at November 2007.

Epinions ( collects user feedback, reviews and ratings for a wide range of products and services. People like this independent service in which any user can guide any other user to good products with candid advice and can warn them against problem suppliers. It is also hugely successful.

These sites, and many others, enable all kinds of people to voice their views. Blogs are an obvious case, along with social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn, Google Docs, and thousands of discussion boards.

The other thing about online reputations and stakeholder opinions is that once they are picked up by Google and other search engines they seem to never disappear from the Web – they haunt cyberspace!

For instance, in December 2006, a week after denying in his blog the rumors of forthcoming job losses, Jason Goldberg, CEO of US job-finding site Jobster, announced layoffs of 40 staff. Other bloggers and people in discussion groups savaged him over his deception. A search on “Jason Goldberg” more than a year later still finds reference to his deception on the first page of the Google search results – a result that still must haunt him. In this way, Google and other search engines are in effect a reputation management system.

Another online reputation lesson is never underestimate the power of a single angry consumer connected to the Internet. For instance, one disgruntled passenger of a low-fare US airline in 2007 triggered hundreds of critical blog comments and emails because the airline had badly treated him. They didn’t realize how much damage he could cause as his vitriol spread around the country via his blog headed: “Do not fly Spirit Airlines.” The airline CEO had thoughtlessly clicked the “Reply to all” button on his email in which he instructed his staff how to respond to the passenger. They relayed the email to the passenger and therefore to the world! (Must have been unhappy staff, too!) The CEO’s email of 20 August 2007 said:

“Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

The viral story quickly gathered sympathetic responses and similar stories of frustration from other customers. At the time of writing, six months after the event, the customer’s rant is still ranked number 3 on the first page of Google search engine results page for the airline! The episode probably cost the airline millions of dollars in revenue and dented its reputation.

In this way, organizational reputations are vulnerable to an unprecedented extent to informed and uninformed comment, to supporters and to critics. Therefore, they need to invest in online reputation management strategies.

An excellent blog explaining many aspects of online reputation management can be found on


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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